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SUDHIN THANAWALA | July 14, 2008 04:35 AM EST | AP

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HONOLULU — Laws in all but a handful of states give the public access to government e-mail. But what if that e-mail was intentionally deleted or routinely purged?

In Hawaii, Gov. Linda Lingle's office allowed e-mails of her top aide to be purged. In North Carolina, Gov. Mike Easley's administration allegedly ordered state workers to delete their e-mail correspondence with his office. And in Missouri, lawsuits claim Gov. Matt Blunt's office deleted e-mails and ordered the destruction of backup e-mail tapes.

These and other cases raise concerns that millions of public records in the form of e-mails may be disappearing before anyone outside government can read them.

Experts say e-mail archiving systems and better training for state employees will help ensure e-mail is not lost.

"We're not saying states are trying to do something bad," said Kevin Joerling, a certified records manager with the Association of Records Managers and Administrators, International, a trade group. "But they don't understand how important e-mail records can be, and they have to be protected."

A 50-state survey by the Associated Press of government e-mail retention earlier this year found a wide variety of laws and practices, with the vast majority of states officially treating e-mail like printed documents. But most of the states with e-mail laws allow officials to choose which ones to turn over in Freedom of Information requests and to decide on their own when e-mail records are deleted.

In Hawaii, a recently settled blackmail case that involved undisclosed allegations against Lingle's former chief of staff, Bob Awana, hinged on e-mails.

The blackmailer, Indian national Rajdatta Patkar, was sentenced last October to a year in prison for demanding $35,000 by e-mail from Awana. According to Patkar's lawyer, Pamela Byrne, her client discovered e-mails that showed two women served as escorts for Awana and a Hawaii businessman on an official state trip by Lingle to the Philippines.

Awana resigned after Patkar's arrest, saying nothing about the case, but Lingle has denied that he did anything wrong on a state time.

The Associated Press requested calendars and e-mails from Awana's government e-mail account in February to determine whether they could provide evidence of misconduct on state trips to the Philippines in 2005 and 2006. But the governor's office said the e-mail had been routinely purged.

Russell Pang, chief of media relations for the Lingle administration, said in May that government e-mail records are deleted every two months. He said Awana did not save e-mails to his hard drive or print them out and that Awana's computer was cleared for use by someone else after Awana resigned last June.

Only a handful of e-mails related to Philippine trips were disclosed to the media, none of them providing evidence of any wrongdoing.

William Tolson, director of legal solutions for Mimosa Systems, Inc., a California-based company that sells e-mail archiving software, said there is no reason states can't retain e-mails longer.

Tolson said corporations have archiving systems that store hundreds of millions of e-mails for years.

"If companies do it, why can't the government?" he asked.

A state panel in North Carolina recommended in May that e-mail messages be stored for at least five years. It also endorsed the development of an archive system for e-mails that need to be retained even longer.

As governor, Easley created the group to study the state's e-mail storage polices after his administration was accused of ordering state employees to delete their e-mail correspondence with the governor's office.

Easley has said there is no evidence such a systematic destruction took place.

But some state officials and records managers say not all e-mails could or even should be retained.

Guidelines issued by the state comptroller in Hawaii allow e-mail that state officials say is not a record, such as informal messages about grabbing lunch or a notice about a holiday party, to be deleted from the e-mail system when "no longer needed for operational purposes."

Joerling said if state agencies retain all e-mails without sorting out government records from more mundane correspondence, they may have trouble retrieving information in response to an official request.

"It's like trying to find a needle in a haystack," he said.

Laurence Brewer, director of the life cycle management division at the federal National Archives and Records Administration, said an agency's records may be used against it in a lawsuit. So keeping records longer than guidelines recommend could also be a liability, he said.

Hawaii State Archivist Susan Shaner said there is simply too much e-mail to save it all.

But open government activists say it's better to err on the side of retaining too much information than risk losing records. Some argue that all e-mails sent and received on government e-mail accounts amount to a public record.

Hawaii state Sen. Les Ihara said technology has made storage space for e-mails and other computer files inexpensive.

"You can store virtually everything," Ihara said. "The rationale that we need to purge in order to save space is moot."