In a classic scene from “The Shawshank Redemption,” an inmate escapes from a notorious prison through a sewage pipe.
Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, doesn’t look so clean when he emerges, but at least he’s free.
We wonder if former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens felt a similar sensation in the wake of a favorable court ruling last week. A Cole County judge ruled that Greitens didn’t violate Missouri’s Sunshine Law when he and his staff used a shady app that automatically destroys text messages.
The judge ruled that use of the app, known as Confide, didn’t subvert state law covering the retention of government records. That’s because, in this case, communication between certain government employees, including the state’s top executive at the time, was never officially retained in the first place.
Perhaps this ruling is a legally correct interpretation of state law meant to facilitate open government, but it can’t cover up the stench created by the use of technology that’s clearly meant to circumvent transparency.
Before his resignation last year, Greitens’ brief tenure as governor featured a strong tendency toward secrecy, including a dark-money nonprofit with mystery contributors and an app that amounted to the digital equivalent of taking a match to official correspondence.
In a post-Greitens era, Missouri Republicans seem almost queasy when recalling this legacy. The offices of Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Gov. Mike Parson have signed agreements to prohibit the use of text-destroying apps for official use.
These are positive steps, but they amount to Band-Aids that easily can be ripped off if a future administration feels it has something to hide. The best response to the Cole County ruling is legislative action next year to prohibit the use of Confide and similar apps in government business.
The House passed a ban on those kinds of apps in the last session, but the measure couldn’t gain traction in the Senate. At times, the legislation was bogged down in controversy about the release of personal information in correspondence between lawmakers and private citizens.
The release of information and the destruction of information are different issues. In 2019, lawmakers should take another stab at deleting these apps.
If they fail to act, elected leaders run the risk of being overtaken by advances in technology and the public’s clear and consistent preference for open government. Remember that failure to pass simple curbs on gifts from lobbyists led to a voter-led initiative with all kinds of baggage attached.
Escaping from the pipe is only half the battle. When it comes to these apps, now is the time to turn on the hose.