Mayor Menino admits city employees routinely deleted e-mails

Menino’s office acknowledges city employees routinely deleted e-mails

By Donovan Slack and Michael Levenson, Globe Staff | September 13, 2009

Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s administration, prompted by public records requests from the Globe, has acknowledged that city employees were routinely deleting e-mails, a potential violation of the state public records law.

The acknowledgement came after the Globe filed several requests for e-mails sent and received by Menino’s Cabinet chief of policy and planning, Michael J. Kineavy. He is one of Menino’s most powerful and trusted advisers, intimately involved in nearly everything at City Hall, but a search of city computers found just 18 e-mails he had sent or received between Oct. 1, 2008, and March 31 of this year.

The unusually low figure prompted administration officials to question him about what happened to the rest of the e-mails he was presumably sending and receiving during that period. Kineavy, who is also one of the mayor’s chief political advisers and a strategist on Menino’s reelection campaigns since 1993, told them that he deletes all his e-mails on a daily basis, in such a way that they are not saved on city backup computers, administration officials said.

There are indications that Kineavy was not the only city employee who may have violated the law. In June, the Globe filed requests for copies of six months’ worth of e-mails sent or received by five other employees, including Transportation Commissioner Thomas Tinlin. City officials said that a search for Tinlin’s e-mails turned up only those he had received, none he had sent.

Alarmed by the deletion of e-mails that could have contained potentially significant information, administration officials recently instituted a new electronic document retention policy and temporary “journaling’’ program, to keep copies of every e-mail sent and received by every city employee.

The city’s chief lawyer, William Sinnott, said the city is working on a more permanent fix. Sinnott also said problems with preserving e-mail are not unique to Boston. “E-mail retention is a challenge with which cities and towns throughout the country struggle,’’ he said. “Both the law and the technology in this area have been evolving and the city has made every effort to comply with the law as we understand it.’’

According to the Massachusetts secretary of state, the state public records law requires municipal employees to save electronic correspondence for at least two years, even if the contents are of “no informational or evidential value.’’ The only e-mails that can be deleted are those containing completely inconsequential information, such as spam or questions about lunch orders.