- Associated Press - Friday, May 6, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Gov. Steve Bullock has used his private email account to communicate about a wide variety of official business, from proposed legislation to his increasingly strained relationship with the former lieutenant governor, according to hundreds of pages of emails released Friday.

The release was in response to December requests by The Associated Press and other news organizations for copies of Bullock’s private emails that deal with public business since his term began in 2013.

Public officials have used private email because of convenience, but in some instances in an attempt to shield themselves from public disclosure laws. Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney are among the public figures who have faced criticism in recent years for their use of private emails and servers, which are potentially more vulnerable to hackers.

Bullock was not available for comment Friday, spokesman Tim Crowe said. The Democratic governor previously told the AP that he uses private email to communicate with his staff about political or election issues, but that government affairs are sometimes intertwined in those messages.

His attorney, Andy Huff, said Bullock rarely uses his Yahoo email account for state business. Bullock spokeswoman Ronja Abel added the governor’s staff will contact him through his private email account because he is more likely to see those messages in the evening or weekend.

“Sometimes it’s simply the best way to get in touch with him,” Abel said.

Montana has no state law preventing public officials from using private email for official business. But the state’s public records law was changed last year to say records in any form in which official business is discussed are subject to disclosure, according to Montana Freedom of Information Hotline attorney Mike Meloy.

Huff said it’s an open question whether the emails are considered public records because the Supreme Court has not ruled on the law. He noted the governor voluntarily provided access to his email and allowed the “unprecedented” release of private communications.

Earlier this year, when a legislative panel discussed the issue regarding their own emails from private accounts dealing with state business, some lawmakers said Montana law was murky on the issue.

Bullock’s emails show his staff and high-level officials such as Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Denise Juneau and Higher Education Commissioner Clayton Christian send queries and updates regarding state business to the governor’s private email account.

The messages cover major issues such as his proposed budget, legislation that included Medicaid expansion and campaign finance transparency and a Washington state bill that threatened the partial closure of the Colstrip power plant.

In forwarding to staff one message critical of his plan to expand Medicaid coverage to the working poor, Bullock included the note, “The haters gonna hate hate hate hate.”

The AP first became aware of Bullock’s use of private email when former Lt. Gov. Angela McLean wrote to the account to express her frustrations about her position before announcing her resignation last year. Her emails to him were released in a public-records request for emails from her state account.

The newly released records shed more light on the strained relationship between McLean, Bullock and his staff.

In May 2015, the lieutenant governor wrote a letter to Bullock saying Chief of Staff Tracy Stone-Manning confirmed the governor was considering a different running mate for his 2016 re-election campaign. “I guess I am learning ambition is a funny thing and realizing the full consequences of standing up for what you believe is right,” McLean wrote.

Bullock responded that he would be happy to discuss the issue.

In July, McLean wrote to Stone-Manning and Bullock that she is not sure the governor will ever value her or the job she does. Bullock’s response to his staff was, “Wow.”

Huff said he had “no idea” whether any security precautions were made to prevent hackers from accessing Bullock’s Yahoo account, and the governor’s staff has not discussed any changes to its email policy.

Public business must be open to outside scrutiny by the news media or government investigators, University of Montana School of Journalism Dean Larry Abramson said.

“It’s important that public officials do not avoid accountability by turning to private email accounts,” Abramson said. “While the governor chose to release his communications (this time), we can’t rely on that in the future.”

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