WASHINGTON — Vice President-elect Mike Pence is embroiled in a legal challenge stemming from his decision to withhold information from a public records request in a case local Democrats say raises the specter of the Indiana governor shielding all of his emails from public view.
It’s a bit ironic as Pence, along with running mate President-elect Donald Trump blasted their way into the White House in part by hammering away at Democrat Hillary Clinton’s own email scandal.
Pence’s lawyers have argued, in part, that a state court decision protecting state lawmakers from releasing their own records should also apply to his office.
But Bill Groth, a Democratic lawyer fighting the Pence administration in state court, cautioned that if the court accepts their argument, it could shield all his communications from the public.
“If the court buys their separation of powers argument, the executive branch will be exempt from (Indiana’s public records law),” Groth said. “Why are they willing to take that risk if they have statutory arguments and they aren’t really seeking to exempt the executive?”
In Clinton’s case, her use of a private email server led to an FBI investigation that dogged her campaign but never amounted to a determination of wrong-doing. But the GOP ticket used it as an example of what they said was poor decision-making and worked to further voter distrust of her.
“The FBI last summer concluded that Hillary Clinton having classified documents on that private server was ‘extremely careless,’ ” Pence said just last week. “And I guess today, I don’t know if you heard, today they announced that they had not changed that conclusion.”
But a top Pence spokesman said that this current email case, which is being weighed in Indiana’s Court of Appeals now, is nothing like Clinton’s email scandal.
“The plaintiff received the text of the email in one question. One email,” said Pence deputy chief of staff Matt Lloyd. “The court reviewed the white paper and determined the state was correct in protecting it as attorney client privilege.”
Lloyd added that Pence has never had a private email server and never destroyed any devices containing his emails.
Groth did receive the email he sought, about Pence’s decision to have the state join a consortium of other states suing to block President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration. But he is fighting for access to the attachment to that email, an issue paper that Pence’s lawyers argue is confidential under attorney-client privilege.
Indiana’s public access counselor, a lawyer who independently reviews public access and transparency complaints, determined that Pence had complied with state law in the case and did not ding him on the issue. The same counselor, last year, blasted state lawmakers for shielding their communications from public view.
But public access advocates and journalists have put Trump on watch, after he blacklisted reporters — something Pence said he fought against joining the ticket. And Pence himself has had transparency woes, after he was forced to pull the plug on on a proposed state-run news service last year.