The state Department of Children, Youth and Families has fired two high-level employees who raised concerns about the agency’s practice of encrypting and summarizing records.
A research by Searchlight New Mexico found that over the past year, CYFD used Signal secure text messaging to discuss a wide range of official business, including the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, care of children in state custody and concerns about private contractors. . At the time, the department’s leadership established that many of these communications would be automatically removed, making them always inaccessible to lawyers, members of the public, and journalists.
The Governor’s Office and the state Department of Information Technology supported the systematic deletion of messages, in accordance with emails and policy guidelines obtained through a public records application.
The state attorney general’s office, Hector Balderas, is currently investigating CYFD’s use of Signal, following an earlier report detailing the agency’s routine deletion of encrypted messages. House Republicans also asked Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to provide a report detailing “whether office staff and / or cabinet staff have been using encryption and data dumping.”
CYFD officials said they relied primarily on Signal for “transitional communications”: what agency secretary Brian Blalock described as a workers’ joke, routine registrations between workers and other insignificant non-subject exchanges. to the laws of public records.
“I don’t think there is any legal responsibility to keep this information under the rules and laws of the New Mexico Public Records Act,” he said in April, adding that CYFD began using Signal as part of a security update.
In an internal CYFD Signal message, record keeper Kathleen Hardy advised that “virtually everything we do [on Signal] retention policies are classified as unregistered and therefore not subject to retention policies. “This message (a public record in itself, a lawyer said) was set to be automatically deleted after 24 hours.
The governor’s office offered similar advice to Lujan Grisham’s staff. “All text messages you send or receive are likely to qualify as‘ transient registration ’,” official advisers advise. “We recommend that you delete all text messages that are ‘transient logs’ every ten days. You can delete them more often if you wish.”
In a statement, press secretary Nora Meyers Sackett said the office has recently conducted a staff update on what is transitory and that the governor takes transparency and open government “very seriously”.
The New Mexico Department of Information Technology has also encouraged the use of the application by CYFD, citing the security benefits of Signal encryption. In an email released by Lujan Grisham’s office, chief lawyer Olga Serafimova stated that “the practice of automatically deleting messages does not violate IPRA” and that “the use of the Signal for Messages application does not constitute a violation of the Public Records Act. “
Cliff W. Gilmore, who acted as CYFD’s head of public information, repeatedly raised concerns with the agency about the department’s signal usage. On April 22, he sent a note to senior CYFD leaders stating that the practice “harmed the credibility and trust of the public in government institutions and their leaders.” He advised the agency to immediately stop using the app.
Immediately after his dismissal, Gilmore informed Balderas that he had not received any guidance on the legal requirements for retaining Signal messages and that he and other employees were instructed to set up Signal messages to delete them automatically.
At one point, Secretary Blalock told a group of about 30 staff members at a ‘leadership’ meeting that people who submitted IPRA applications would regularly find out that we were using Signal and that when a single one arrived. IPRA application, we would have to keep it all from now on, we would have to set up our Signal applications as automatic removal 24 hours a day, ”Gilmore wrote in an email on May 18th.
Gilmore’s wife, Debra Gilmore, who was hired in late 2020 to head CYFD’s newly created Office of Children’s Rights, confirmed that she had also raised internal concerns about Signal. She was also fired on May 6.
Cliff and Debra Gilmore declined to comment further on its completion.
CYFD spokesman Charlie Moore-Pabst said the department could not comment on the dismissal, citing a policy that banned the discussion of staffing issues. Other employees have also raised internal concerns about the routine suppression of CYFD communications. In August, a complaint filed with the attorney general stated that the department was directing staff to communicate through the Slack messaging platform and then systematically deleting conversations from the app.
In response, Deputy Attorney General John Kreienkamp determined that CYFD appeared to do so to “reduce the number of communications withheld by the Department subject to disclosure as public records.” But he did not investigate further.
Lawyers familiar with CYFD described the deletion of Signal’s messages as part of a “secret story of decades.” Although employee communications, while not subject to requests for public records, play a vital role in the work of court-appointed guardians.
“Children are not safe if we don’t have all the information,” said Sara Crecca, a lawyer who represents young people in foster care.
“This is an agency with a history of covering up abuses. And besides, do they delete information? It is not Blalock’s job to determine what is transient. This material should be preserved.
The practice has also sparked alarms among lawyers who focus on government transparency.
“The governor’s policy guidelines recommending the prompt, automatic and routine deletion of all government text and voice messages are clear evidence of a contemptuous attitude towards the principles of transparency,” said Charles Peifer, a lawyer based. in Albuquerque who served as Deputy Chief of Attorney General of New Mexico. “It would be naive for the public to believe that, having established a ‘secret channel’ for communication, government officials who say nothing of importance in this regard can be trusted.”
From June to April, CYFD used Signal to coordinate its response to the pandemic with the New Mexico Department of Human Services and the state Department of Health, according to more than 100 screenshots that the Department of Health provided in response to a request for public records.
These talks include extensive discussions between Blalock and other public employees about the state network of COVID-19 shelters, including Transitional Rehabilitation Canyon, the troubled nursing home that received a lucrative state contract to care for COVID-19 patients, as well as discussions on federal aid, communications with tribal governments, updates on test sites, and counting infections.
These signal messages were set to be deleted automatically after a week, according to screenshots of the app settings, but were retained by several Department of Health employees.
While attorneys said some of these messages may be transient, they characterized others as official records that are subject to conservation laws.
Other signal messages show that CYFD used the app to discuss legislative issues and issues with private contractors, as well as to communicate with foster parents about issues related to the welfare of foster children.
Even though the department stopped using the app on April 29, many CYFD employees continue to have active Signal accounts on their phones. Meanwhile, the department has switched to Microsoft Teams, a platform that gives the agency the same ability to automatically encrypt and delete messages.
Disclosure: Searchlight’s external attorney, Greg Williams, is a lawyer in Peifer’s law firm.
Searchlight New Mexico is a non-profit, non-profit news organization dedicated to research reports in New Mexico.