The election of 2016 has brought into public awareness the importance of transparency in the government. Scandals surrounding emails that were drafted, sent, and received on private accounts and devices sank campaigns and uprooted the political system as we know it. The question of whether or not politicians have the right to use private accounts and devices when conducting government business continues to land at the feet of politicians around the country including Democrat Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Rahm Emanuel and the Use of a Private Email Account
Rahm Emanuel was recently discovered to be using a private email account and device to conduct government business via email. This scandal comes on the heels of a similar email scandal that sank the campaign of Hillary Clinton as she ran for the presidency. While Rahm Emanuel and the City of Chicago argued that his emails and devices were off limits because they derived from a private account, the watchdog group the Better Government Association argued that Rahm Emanuel wanted only to curtail the extent to which his own constituency could hold him in check.
To a greater extent, the actions of Rahm Emmanuel could influence the behavior of the city’s own 30,000 plus employees and the manner in which they conduct their own government business via email. While privacy laws say that most communications created, received, or sent on private accounts are exempt, the laws also say that people have a right to access most government communications. But how can they access those emails if the emails were written on, sent from, and received by private email accounts and devices?
This was the question taken to court by the BGA and its supporters in Cook County, Illinois. Two county judges sided with the watchdog group and ordered Rahm Emanuel to release his emails even though they came from his own private email account and device. The watchdog group hails the judge’s decision as a landmark for citizens in Chicago and beyond.
Why Transparency in Government Matters
The politicians who are elected to serve on the public’s behalf at any level of government are beholden to the people who put them in office in the first place. They have an obligation to account for all of their actions, expenditures, and speeches. In theory, they have no right to secrecy when it comes to their duty of acting on behalf of their constituency.
So why then do some politicians try to conceal their emails by using private servers, devices, and email accounts? The federal government blurs the line when it comes to privacy and safeguarding communications. It says that everyday people have the expectation of privacy when sending and receiving their own emails from their own private accounts and devices. However, it also says at the same time that the public has the right to government letters, emails, phone call transcripts, and more in a bid to keep elected officials in check.
To solve this dilemma, many watchdog groups and supporters of transparency back up their arguments with the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. FOIA outlines to what extent the public can access and review unclassified government communications. It is this act that prompted the Chicago judges to back the Better Government Association in Cook County.
Politicians have an obligation to account for their government business to the people who voted them into office. Their refusal to disclose emails derived from private accounts and devices continues to be viewed as a violation of the Freedom of Information Act. More judges agree that government business conducted by email on private devices and accounts are not exempt from transparency laws.
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