BOSTON Massachusetts officials are reviewing a 14-year-old state court ruling to determine whether they should ban public access to paper records generated by leading Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney when he was the state's governor.
Officials said the review, revealed to Reuters, began after they received a surge of requests for records from Romney's governorship. It was not prompted by a request from Romney camp, they said.
The review follows reports by the Boston Globe newspaper last week that just before Romney left the governor's office in 2007, 11 of his top aides purchased their state-issued computer hard drives and internal emails from Romney's administration were wiped from a state server.
Republican and Democratic foes of Romney say the email scrub and questions about whether the public should have access to Romney's gubernatorial papers undermine efforts to assess his dealings as a politician and elected official.
Romney was governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007 and worked with a Democratic-led state house to close a budget shortfall. He signed a healthcare overhaul that required nearly all state residents to buy insurance or face penalties.
Massachusetts' healthcare law became a model for President Barack Obama's nationwide healthcare overhaul, enacted into law last year.
As a presidential candidate, however, Romney has criticized "Obamacare," calling it an overreach by the federal government. His views on healthcare are criticized in TV ads by the Democratic National Committee that cast him as a flip flopper.
At issue in the state review is Massachusetts officials' confusion over what rights the public has to see Romney's records, and what rights he has to keep them private.
State records typically are considered state property; Massachusetts' law grants public access to such records as long as certain types of data, such as personal information, are redacted.
However, officials say, a state court ruling in 1997 could be interpreted to mean that the governor's records are not subject to public disclosure requirements.
A long-time Romney adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity said the former governor believes that records generated by his office are not public documents. Noting that Romney voluntarily archived hundreds of boxes of records that have been available to the public, the adviser said that "we have no objection at all" to continued public access to those papers.
Publicly, Romney's campaign said that questions about the former governor's handling of his administration's records were politically motivated.
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said that present Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, was trying to cast Romney as secretive about his record in office.
"It looks like Deval Patrick is doing the Obama campaign's dirty work," Saul said. "We expect to see more of these political attacks to distract from Obama's horrible record on jobs. In leaving office, the governor's staff complied with the law and longtime executive branch practice. Some employees exercised the option to purchase computer equipment when they left. They did so openly with personal checks."
The confusion over how the state's open records law applies to Romney's papers has been particularly evident this week.
Monday, a senior state archivist told a Reuters reporter that because of the policy review, the state archives two or three weeks ago had been told to shut off public access to all Romney papers it held, including documents that previously were available for public review.
Later that day, a spokesman for Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin, the official in charge of the state archives, said the ban on access to Romney's records was in force only for a few days and archivists were now free to give access to records that previously had been made public.
However, officials indicated that for now, archivists will not process requests for disclosure of previously undisclosed Romney papers.
Michael Comeau, director of operations for the Massachusetts State Archives, said that since Romney left office, only about 20 percent of an estimated 600 to 700 boxes of his records held by the archives had been made public. That disclosure followed a review of their contents by non-political archivists who removed or redacted material, such as personal information, whose disclosure is restricted by law.
A catalog of box titles compiled by the archivists indicates that some of the contents relate to controversial issues that arose during Romney's governorship. Those include health care, same-sex marriage, and problems with the "Big Dig" a massive tunnel and highway project through Boston.
Journalists who went through some of the boxes when Romney briefly entered the last Republican presidential race four years ago found little controversial or illuminating material.
State officials said they did not know whether Romney or his aides went through or removed any material from the files before they were turned over to the state archives.
Galvin's spokesman, Brian McNiff, said the state review is continuing and he did not know when it would be completed. Galvin, a Democrat, was not available to comment.
McNiff declined to specify what possible outcomes of the current review could be. However, other officials said one possibility is that the state could deny access to all of Romney's records, including records released previously.
One state official, who asked for anonymity when discussing a politically sensitive issue, said at some point before he left office, Romney asked for official permission to destroy some of the records generated during his term as governor.
The official said that details of this request could only be made public in response to a freedom of information request. Reuters filed such a request Monday.
(Editing by David Lindsey and Cynthia Osterman)