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Private messaging apps used for official business test open records laws

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Smart phone private messaging apps are great for keeping secrets.

They’re especially useful for criminals, paramours and teens hiding conversations from their parents. But what about government officials and elected representatives? State Government Team reporter Ryan Foley spotted a trend of public officials increasingly using such apps for official business. It’s a trend that alarms advocates for open government, who say it undermines state laws designed to ensure transparency and access to public records. The apps delete messages almost immediately and do not allow them to be saved, copied or captured with a screenshot.

A Missouri lawmaker likened the practice to conducting public business “using invisible ink.”

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Republican Jeff Colyer takes the oath as governor of Kansas during a ceremony in Topeka, Kan., Jan. 31, 2018. In February, Colyer announced an executive order that requires his staff to use official email accounts for all government business. He also banned private accounts for any communications related to “the functions, activities, programs, or operations” of the office. – AP Photo / Orlin Wagner

Foley’s research was based in large part on use of a new digital legislative tracking tool called the Sunshine Hub that was developed by AP Data Team members Serdar Tumgoren and Seth Rasmussen. The tool allowed Foley to see whether bills addressing the trend were being introduced in state legislatures across the country. And indeed they were. Some bills,like a failed one introduced by the Missouri lawmaker,sought to limit the practice and ensure that government business was done in public. Many other bills,however,took the opposite approach. They sought to protect lawmakers and other government officials who communicate over private messaging apps.

Tumgoren,the news applications team leader,and Rasmussen,news apps developer,built the Sunshine Hub over the past year in coordination with a user advisory committee of FOI advocates and editors from AP member organizations. It since has grown into a robust platform allowing reporters inside and outside AP to track government transparency legislation in all 50 states, and will become a regular feature of our Sunshine Week package.

The Sunshine Hub allows reporters to track transparency legislation in all 50 states.

The resulting story won play on more than two dozen front pages,including in The Columbus Dispatch,The Times-Picayune in New Orleans,the Ventura County Star,The Register-Guard in Eugene,Oregon,and The Gainesville Sun in Florida. It also prompted several editorials, including one in The Columbus Dispatch warning that officials’ use of message-vanishing apps was the same as destroying public records. The Lancaster Media Group in Pennsylvania wrote that it was alarmed after reading Foley’s story and said, “Elected officials and public employees should not comport themselves like teens on Snapchat.” And a St. Joseph (Missouri) News-Press editorial said that allowing public officials to use secretive messaging apps to conduct government business “is a violation of the public’s trust.”

For their efforts in exposing a potentially dangerous anti-transparency trend among government officials,and developing a unique tool to track it,Foley, Tumgoren and Rasmussen win the Best of the States award.

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