Sunday, May 19, 2013
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Students at Cape Elizabeth Middle School use a school laptop in June 2011. A request for archival documents about the state’s school laptop program revealed a problem with how Jeff Mao, the state official in charge of the program, was backing up his emails. The Department of Education says it has taken steps to correct the issue.
File photo by Amanda Kozaka
Jeff Mao, learning technology policy director
Kielty would not comment on the context or existence of an ongoing investigation, but in a March 1 letter to Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen that was obtained by the Telegram, she wrote: "Mr. Mao's response to (The MacSmith's public records) request has taken an unreasonably long amount of time while he wandered from excuses to blame, finally arriving at a confession of his own technological blunder. ... Mr. Mao's credibility has suffered and his ability to ensure that state government records are retained and maintained as required by law is subject to question."
The Department of Education said it would not make Mao available for an interview, and he did not respond to an interview request. In a series of interviews and written responses to questions last week, department spokesman David Connerty-Marin described the sequence of events in detail, acknowledged the system had not worked as it should, and said the department was taking steps to fully address both the technical issue and The MacSmith's records request.
"We take transparency and responsiveness seriously and have a good track record. We dropped the ball on this one," Connerty-Marin said. "We have identified the problem and ... already largely implemented the solution."
The situation developed more than a decade ago, when Maine's laptop program purchased Macs. Mao and a handful of other education department personnel who worked closely with participating schools also adopted Macs, but encountered problems interacting with the state's PC-based computer network and its email servers.
"We did the best we could over the years to construct a solution for backing up email and documents," Connerty-Marin said, noting that from 2004 Mao backed up his material himself, using an external hard drive generally kept at his home. "We agree that we should have acted more quickly on resolving this technology issue to ensure a backup for the Macs."
SPOKESMAN: SERIES OF INNOCENT ERRORS
Senior officials were apparently unaware of the breach in records retention policy. "I did not know and clearly would have expected there was a backup and didn't realize that was what was happening," says Sue Gendron, who was commissioner of education from 2003 to 2010.
Connerty-Marin said that Mao's is the only computer that until recently was not being backed up on state servers. He said it was his understanding that in mid-July, the Office of Information Technology had upgraded servers, allowing Mao's emails to be backed up, although the office did not respond to inquiries to confirm this.
He described a chain of events that may have given the impression of impropriety but that he asserted were really the product of Mao's innocent mistakes: distraction due to work on awarding a major laptop program renewal contract; a series of user-error software blunders leading him to falsely believe he had lost months of email; the accidental discovery of the error; and a misreading by the department of the scope of the public records The MacSmith had requested.
The practice was clearly not in accordance with state policy, but if no records were intentionally destroyed, it would probably not result in legal punishment, said Cheever, the state archivist. "If you are in a position of authority and responsibility, you are expected to adhere to record retention policy, and not doing so gets you into administrative trouble," he said. "The legal sanction, however, is on actually destroying records."
Connerty-Marin said his department was backing up Mao's external hard drive and would turn it over to the Office of Information Technology to ensure that no records responsive to The MacSmith's request had been accidentally missed. The office was to confirm that Mao's computer and email account and those on any other department Macs were being backed up nightly. All future public records requests were to be managed by Gregg Scott, the department's official Freedom of Access Act coordinator, as per proper department procedure.
He was also under the impression last week that The MacSmith had received all the requested documents from Mao's account, but the company said this is not the case and that there were still glaring gaps in the records.
"There is supposed to be transparency in government and there are millions of dollars at stake here, and yet we requested information and were not given it," said Smith, the company's owner. "If they can't be transparent about contracts, and given the amount of money involved, how can the public trust them?"
Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: