March 10, 2013

State official: Laptop official's handling of emails violated policy

Maine’s public access advocate says Jeff Mao’s ‘credibility has suffered’ over failure to back up documents on state networks.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA - The state official in charge of Maine's $13 million school laptop program stored all of his electronic correspondence outside the state's networks for eight years, bypassing safeguards against the accidental or intentional destruction of public records in apparent violation of state policy.

click image to enlarge

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

click image to enlarge

Jeff Mao, learning technology policy director

For nearly a decade, Jeff Mao, head of the Maine Laptop Technology Initiative at the Department of Education, accessed his email in a way that did not leave backups on the state's computer networks, and instead stored them and other electronic records on an external hard drive kept at his residence. Mao -- who oversees the $13 million annual program and the awarding of tens of millions of dollars in related equipment, service, and support contracts -- initiated the practice shortly after joining the department in 2004, the department confirmed last week.

"This is a clear violation of record retentions policies, and turns the recordkeeping apparatus on its head," said Maine State Archivist David Cheever. "It would be almost impossible for a long-serving state employee not to have come in contact with the policy."

It is unclear whether any documents were lost or destroyed while in Mao's sole custody.

The situation came to light in recent weeks after Mao was temporarily unable to locate five months of electronic correspondence in response to a public records request. The request -- initiated in September by The MacSmith, a Portland computer services firm whose owner became concerned about how the state's school laptop program was being managed -- dealt with information on two contracts the company had bid for unsuccessfully in 2012.

The MacSmith remains unsatisfied with the documents it has received to date.

"Months and months of emails are still missing," The MacSmith owner Stan Smith said Friday. "Either they were hidden or withheld or there is serious incompetence."

The MacSmith's lawyer referred the matter to the public records ombudsman at the Attorney General's Office on Feb. 13 after Mao gave a series of apparently inconsistent explanations for his inability to fulfill their request.

Initially, Mao wrote in early October that the request would take "2-3 working days" to complete. Having received nothing by Oct. 26, The MacSmith's attorney sent a second request; Mao responded with a small number of documents and said that he had "not yet had the time" to search his email for the rest. Prompted a third time Dec. 17, Mao wrote Dec. 20 that his "account lost all emails sent and received for a large chunk of time as a result of the changeover of the state's email server system," which, he said, "was, in part, the reason for the slower than anticipated response."

LAPTOP CHIEF'S 'TECHNOLOGICAL BLUNDER'

On the advice of the public records ombudsman, Brenda Kielty, Smith asked the Office of Information Technology to provide the missing content -- a five-month block of emails from Jan. 25 to July 17, 2012 -- from its backup recovery system. The information technology office discovered the emails did not reside on the state's servers and therefore were not backed up there. The office reported that Mao had told them he was accessing his email using the Post Office Protocol, or POP, in which emails passed through the state server but didn't actually reside there and therefore were not backed up there.

As the ombudsman and Maine Sunday Telegram began making inquiries of the department, Mao informed Kielty on Feb. 27 that he had found an old backup and revealed that his hard drives were kept at his residence. After initially saying he was having trouble moving the emails from an archive, he announced the following day that he'd found them on his laptop computer after all.

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:

cwoodard@pressherald.com

 

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