Sunshine Week sheds no new light on Cuomo’s official records

Gov. David Paterson's records retention schedule, obtained through a freedom of information request. Click image to see the full document.

The New York World had hoped to bring you some important government documents in honor of Sunshine Week but we’ve been foiled, so to speak.

In December, we began our quest to find Gov. Cuomo’s records from his time as New York State Attorney General. The office of the current Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, informed us they had been packed for shipment. Two sources at the New York State Archives told us it had not received the files. Neither the Archives, the Attorney General’s office could confirm where the records were. The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment at the time.

A few hours after our story first ran, State Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman told Capitol Confidential that the AG’s office made four shipments of records to the Archives that were still being processed. He even gave the dates of the shipments but said if anyone wanted to see them, they’d have to submit a Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, request. So we did.

On Dec. 23, 2011, The New York World requested the manifests for each of the four shipments to the State Education Department, which reports to the state Board of Regents, not Gov. Cuomo. The Education Department responded with an email saying we would hear back by Jan. 27, 2012. When that day came and went, we made repeated calls and staff told us that our request was in the right place but they couldn’t say anything more.

We mailed an appeal on Feb. 17 and received an acknowledgment over the phone that we would have a response by March 9. According to the law, by that day we were required to receive either full access to the requested records or else a written explanation detailing in full why our response was denied.

When March 9 came and went we continued to make calls, including many this week. The answer has been the same: our request is being processed and an answer is officially due March 9. Meanwhile, our calendars read March 16.

“The Department continues to review your appeal,” said Jonathan Burman, spokesman for the New York State Education Department.

We’d also hoped this week to offer insight into how the Governor has been managing his records since taking that office in Jan. 2011 and proceeding to make history. What can scholars researching the passage of same-sex marriage expect to find in his papers? Will anyone ever get to peek behind the scenes of the high-stakes negotiations over pension reform?

An executive order signed by Gov. David Paterson during his last weeks in office calls on his administration to create a records retention schedule detailing how and when different types of documents will be preserved or disposed of. The order does not apply to the Cuomo administration, which nonetheless says it is preparing a plan for records preservation. The New York World first requested a records-retention schedule from Cuomo’s office on on Feb. 9. Matt Wing, spokesman for the governor’s office, said that the document is coming soon. “We are in the process of finalizing a records retention policy that will preserve historically significant records and make them accessible to the public, including in some cases through the State Archives,” said Wing. “In the interim our records retention officer will ensure that appropriate records are preserved.”

What might such a record-of-records look like? All we have to work from is Paterson’s records schedule — obtained from the governor’s office via a freedom of information request — which was only in effect for the final 19 days of his term.

The schedule shows Paterson administration had planned to send most of his records – including press materials, approvals of programs and actions, operational schedules, appointment logs, and correspondence – to “Governor’s Public/Private Papers,” with only a small subset cc’d to the State Archives. Paterson announced at the end of his term that he intended to donate his papers to Cornell University instead of the Archives; that deal has since fallen apart, and the papers are destined for the Archives.

But many documents won’t make it that far. FOIL requests, budget drafts and final copies, legislative memos, reports from state agencies, budget records, opinions from the governor’s ethics counsel and Commission on Public Integrity, and commission appointment records were all among the documents his office committed to retain for a period of zero to three years after Paterson’s term. Their final disposition thereafter is marked as “Destroy.”

Correction: An earlier version of the story suggested that the executive order signed by Gov. Paterson applied to future governors, as confirmed by an official from the State Archives. However, the order applied only to the Paterson administration’s own records.

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