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Jindal aides strategize in private e-mail

Method is counter to public-records laws. The La. leader was not included.

BATON ROUGE, La. - Top officials in Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration used personal e-mail accounts to craft a media strategy for imposing hundreds of millions of dollars in Medicaid cuts - a method of communication that can make it more difficult to track under public-records laws, despite Jindal's pledge to bring more transparency to state government.

E-mails reviewed by the Associated Press reveal that non-state-government e-mail addresses were used dozens of times by state officials to communicate last summer about a public relations offensive for making $523 million in health-care cuts. Those documents weren't provided to AP in response to a public-records request.

Jindal, now in his second term, has become a leading voice among Republican governors and is considered a potential presidential candidate. It's unclear whether he knew his top staff used private accounts to conduct public business. The practice folds into a national debate over the use of personal e-mail accounts by government officials to discuss official business.

The issue was a prominent one during the administration of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and the practice occurred during former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's term as Massachusetts governor.

Palin's use of private e-mail accounts as governor prompted a lawsuit in which the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that officials using private e-mail accounts for public business needed to keep documents "appropriate for preservation" under the state's records-management act. In response, her successor has instructed employees to use state e-mail for conducting state business.

While governor in Massachusetts, Romney used two private e-mail addresses to communicate with aides, develop policy and political strategy, and edit op-ed articles and news releases. The communications were legal under Massachusetts law, but state public officials deemed them public records and subject to archiving.

The head of a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks public records issues said government officials often used private e-mail accounts to try to sidestep disclosure laws designed to provide sunshine in government.

"Absolutely, people use private accounts to hide things," said Kenneth Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, based at the University of Missouri. "If government business is conducted, or information about it is sent or received on personal computers or through personal e-mail accounts, that does not keep it from being the public's business."

While some states consider electronic communications public material and subject to the same restrictions as paper records, many others provide little or no oversight. At least 26 states view the use of private e-mails as public records, but the rest have no clear rules or prevailing case law on their use.

The e-mail exchanges in Louisiana took place this summer, as the Jindal administration was planning steep reductions to programs for the poor and uninsured because of a drop in federal Medicaid funding.

Participants included Jindal's top budget adviser Kristy Nichols, health care secretary Bruce Greenstein, Greenstein's chief of staff and health policy adviser, and Jindal's communications staff. Jindal was not included in the e-mails, and his office hasn't responded to a question about his knowledge of them.

The dozens of conversations held outside the state's official e-mail system covered subjects such as news releases, responses to news coverage of the budget cuts, preparation of an opinion column to be submitted by Greenstein to newspapers, and complaints about reporters' coverage.

The e-mails were provided to AP by an administration official who participated in the discussions and who asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to release them.