Gov. Tony Evers has used a government email address under the alias of late hall of fame Milwaukee Braves pitcher Warren Spahn to conduct state business, a practice Evers’ office described as common practice for Wisconsin governors, but one that transparency advocates said raises questions.
The conservative website Wisconsin Right Now first reported Evers’ Spahn email in a story published late Sunday evening. The outlet said its request for emails from the email@example.com address returned more than 17,000 results.
Wisconsin Right Now linked to examples of emails it said were from the Spahn account that include communications about COVID-19 responses, and well wishes to state agency staff that were sometimes signed by Evers.
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When asked about the address by WPR, Evers Communications Director Britt Cudaback said “dignitaries in the state of Wisconsin have alias email addresses, including the governor, first lady, and lieutenant governor” as a security measure. Cudaback said that’s been the case for at least the past decade, including under former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
“All email correspondence are subject to, searched, and provided as responsive as required under Wisconsin’s Open Records law and, in fact, in every instance in which our office has provided such responsive records, we have explicitly made requesters aware of these addresses, and the purpose of their redaction, in providing responsive records,” Cudaback said.
Cudaback said Evers’ office has redacted the “non-public official direct email” address used by Evers to reduce “digital security risks” associated with the governor’s other public email address.
Bill Lueders, the president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said using alias email addresses may be common, “but it’s not a practice that was known to the public.”
“This is something that apparently has been going on for some time and maybe (there’s) nothing nefarious about it,” Leuders said. “But it certainly is something that the public has a right to know about, that these accounts exist there.”
Wisconsin Transparency Project President Tom Kamenick said the use of a pseudonym email address doesn’t seem “illegal or inherently problematic by itself,” but he said he isn’t sure he “buys” the digital security claim.
“It seems the more practical reason they do this is your public-facing email address is just everywhere and gets massive amounts of spam and newsletters and everything under the sun,” Kamenick said. “And if you have a lesser-known email address, it’s easier to see important messages from the few people that you’ve shared it with.”
Still, Kamenick said it does raise potential red flags.
“Because if a government official is using a separate, secondary email address that isn’t known,” Kamerick said, “do you trust that government official that they are searching it when they are asked to turn over all their emails?”
There isn’t clear guidance from the courts on whether redacting an alias email address from records requests is allowable, Kamenick said, though he suspects the Evers’ administration won’t be able “to hide it anymore.”
“I expect that the reaction would be to pick a new, new pseudonymous email address,” Kamenick said.
An email sent by WPR to firstname.lastname@example.org at noon on Monday bounced back with a message that it had been “rejected by the recipient email server.”
Cudaback did not respond when asked whether Evers’ alias email account had been disabled or whether the administration plans to use another alias in the future.
Evers has talked publicly about his admiration of Spahn, who was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame in 1973 after playing 21 seasons in the major leagues, including more than a decade in Milwaukee. When the governor introduced a plan earlier this year to fund renovations at the Brewers’ stadium, he said he’d seen Spahn’s 300th career game, calling it a “chance of a lifetime.”
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