On Monday, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction improperly denied a public records request filed by dozens of concerned citizens, making it more difficult for the public to learn which member of Superintendent Mark Johnson’s staff illegally snooped on a retiree’s personal text messages.
The citizens are seeking computer inventory records which would reveal who got former K-3 Literacy Director Carolyn Guthrie’s MacBook Air after she retired.
Guthrie turned in her DPI-issued laptop when she retired in 2017 but neglected to log out of her iCloud account. More than a year later, a text message between Guthrie and another former DPI employee was intercepted and used by Superintendent Mark Johnson as pretext for cancelling a multimillion dollar K-3 reading assessment procurement.
The superintendent has maintained ignorance about how the text message was obtained, stating in a sworn deposition last fall that a paper copy of the text message was slid under the door of Deputy Superintendent Pam Shue by an anonymous whistleblower. Johnson has mocked allegations of impropriety with references to his “elite squad of ninjas.”
In DPI’s denial of the public records request, Director of Communications Graham Wilson claimed that the requested computer inventory records were confidential personnel records:
“The requested asset information is confidential pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 126-22, -24 and thus not subject to disclosure. The Department is consequently prohibited from releasing such information.”
The statute Wilson cited falls under The Privacy of State Employee Personnel Records, which protects certain sensitive personnel information from being openly available to the public.
That information doesn’t include inventory numbers of computers.
According to Dr. Brooks Fuller, Director of the NC Open Government Coalition, public agencies often try to stretch the personnel exemption to fit anything about an employee. However, the North Carolina Supreme Court has already affirmed that protected personnel information is only information that: 1) is collected by the government employer; 2) for a purpose enumerated in the statute. Those protected purposes are: application, selection, promotion, demotion, transfer, leave, salary, contract for employment, benefits, suspension, performance evaluation, disciplinary actions, and termination.
Dr. Fuller told me, “The question of whether a public employee was assigned a specific publicly funded device does not, in my opinion, meet any of these statutory reasons for exemption. I think this is likely an attempt by DPI to extend the reach of the statute beyond its natural and plain meaning.”
The Department of Public Instruction seems to be working very hard to keep the public in the dark about what really happened with Carolyn Guthrie’s personal communications. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who has paid attention to DPI’s practices regarding public records under Mark Johnson’s leadership. It’s especially unsurprising at this point in time, considering that Johnson’s primary for Lieutenant Governor is right around the corner.
Hypothetically speaking, if Johnson himself had direct knowledge of criminal behavior occurring under DPI’s roof, and if he lied about that in a sworn deposition, this would be a really inconvenient time for such details to come to light.
Of course, North Carolina’s public records law doesn’t include a bad political timing exemption–just as it doesn’t include an exemption for those computer inventory records.