INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb's emails from the start of the pandemic that have been obtained by WRTV Investigates are raising more questions than answers.
Our goal at WRTV is to be transparent with you as we try to get more information from our public officials about COVID-19.
On April 1, 2020, as the pandemic was ramping up in Indiana, WRTV Investigates submitted a public records request for Governor Holcomb and State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box’s emails dating back to Jan. 1, 2020 with the keywords “COVID-19,” “COVID19”, “coronavirus” and “pandemic.”
The goal — to see what those early discussions looked like among state leaders in the winter of 2020 as COVID-19 began to take hold in Indiana.
Nine months later, on Dec. 31, 2020, WRTV Investigates received some documents — 28 pages containing a total of 6 emails.
In the first email on Feb. 25, Holcomb, shown as “EJH51,” sent a news article to Box and other staff about the first U.S. soldier getting infected.
On March 2 and 8, the Governor forwarded emails from the White House to Box and staff, including information about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shipping COVID-19 tests.
At that time, COVID-19 tests were not readily available.
On March 9, Dr. Box responded to Holcomb.
“Thanks hopefully we get them in the next couple of days," Box wrote.
In the last two emails, on March 9 and 10, Holcomb forwarded emails from Hanover College and Indiana University about their next steps related to the virus.
So, where’s the rest of the emails between Holcomb and Box between Jan. 1-April 1?
Holcomb's office claims the rest of the emails are exempt from disclosure because they’re “advisory or deliberative material."
The Governor’s Office cited an Indiana statute that is meant to protect intra-agency or interagency “expressions of opinion” that are communicated “for the purpose of decision making.”
Bill Groth, an attorney and staunch advocate for access to public records, has filed numerous lawsuits over access to lawmaker and governor emails.
“It’s not easy for us to get to the bottom of what’s going on, and it’s frustrating,” Groth said. “I certainly think it's something of tremendous public interest."
Groth said courts generally agree that the factual portion of emails should be disclosed, but not necessarily the opinions of public officials.
"The public has a significant interest in knowing what it's government is up to, what it's government officials are up to,” Groth said. “That's the whole purpose behind the transparency laws such as the APRA, the Access to Public Records Act. I can't think of anything more important."
Indiana’s Public Access Counselor Luke Britt explained the “deliberative” exception is very broad in Indiana, which means government agencies have a lot of latitude to not disclose certain records.
"The courts have said it's to protect frank discussion," said Britt. "Government officials still have the opportunity to do some things amongst each other in a vacuum, pre-decisional. So those preliminary communications leading to a decision — if they're documented, the law allows that to be done and withheld."
Indiana’s Public Access Counselor can issue opinions, but does not have enforcement authority, nor does he have the power to look at the emails in question and determine if they should be disclosed.
“I would assume a lot of that communication was exchanged in real time, person to person,” Britt said. “So, there may not be a whole lot out there in the first place.”
WRTV would likely have to file a lawsuit to have a court look at Holcomb and Box’s emails and determine if certain emails, or portions of emails, should be released.
"As a citizen I would not take the word of any governmental official. I would want to see the documents,” Groth said. “I would want a court to see the documents and have a court make that judgment."
Groth also criticized the nine-month response time WRTV experienced.
“Governmental officials disregard APRA as a nuisance,” Groth said. “They don’t take it seriously anymore. Until people start suing them and prevailing in court, I’m afraid that attitude is going to continue.”
While public agencies still have to fulfill records requests during the pandemic, the Public Access Counselor has given them some leeway in terms of the time to fulfill them given that many state employees are working from home.
A spokesperson for the Governor said Holcomb and Box also worked together in-person a considerable amount, especially during the early days of the pandemic.
WRTV Investigates also requested emails between Holcomb and Vice President Mike Pence about COVID-19 dating back to Feb. 28.
The Governor’s Office told us our request was not “reasonably particular” enough.
“While your request provides a specific date range and search terms, you do not identify specific senders or recipients other than Governor Holcomb and Vice President Pence,” read the response. “To enable us to conduct the search, please identify specific senders and recipients or, at a minimum, staff titles or positions.”
Read the emails below