March 10, 2013

State official: Laptop official's handling of emails violated policy

Maine’s public access advocate says Jeff Mao’s ‘credibility has suffered’ over failure to back up documents on state networks.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA - The state official in charge of Maine's $13 million school laptop program stored all of his electronic correspondence outside the state's networks for eight years, bypassing safeguards against the accidental or intentional destruction of public records in apparent violation of state policy.

click image to enlarge

Students at Cape Elizabeth Middle School use a school laptop in June 2011. A request for archival documents about the state’s school laptop program revealed a problem with how Jeff Mao, the state official in charge of the program, was backing up his emails. The Department of Education says it has taken steps to correct the issue.

File photo by Amanda Kozaka

click image to enlarge

Jeff Mao, learning technology policy director

For nearly a decade, Jeff Mao, head of the Maine Laptop Technology Initiative at the Department of Education, accessed his email in a way that did not leave backups on the state's computer networks, and instead stored them and other electronic records on an external hard drive kept at his residence. Mao -- who oversees the $13 million annual program and the awarding of tens of millions of dollars in related equipment, service, and support contracts -- initiated the practice shortly after joining the department in 2004, the department confirmed last week.

"This is a clear violation of record retentions policies, and turns the recordkeeping apparatus on its head," said Maine State Archivist David Cheever. "It would be almost impossible for a long-serving state employee not to have come in contact with the policy."

It is unclear whether any documents were lost or destroyed while in Mao's sole custody.

The situation came to light in recent weeks after Mao was temporarily unable to locate five months of electronic correspondence in response to a public records request. The request -- initiated in September by The MacSmith, a Portland computer services firm whose owner became concerned about how the state's school laptop program was being managed -- dealt with information on two contracts the company had bid for unsuccessfully in 2012.

The MacSmith remains unsatisfied with the documents it has received to date.

"Months and months of emails are still missing," The MacSmith owner Stan Smith said Friday. "Either they were hidden or withheld or there is serious incompetence."

The MacSmith's lawyer referred the matter to the public records ombudsman at the Attorney General's Office on Feb. 13 after Mao gave a series of apparently inconsistent explanations for his inability to fulfill their request.

Initially, Mao wrote in early October that the request would take "2-3 working days" to complete. Having received nothing by Oct. 26, The MacSmith's attorney sent a second request; Mao responded with a small number of documents and said that he had "not yet had the time" to search his email for the rest. Prompted a third time Dec. 17, Mao wrote Dec. 20 that his "account lost all emails sent and received for a large chunk of time as a result of the changeover of the state's email server system," which, he said, "was, in part, the reason for the slower than anticipated response."

LAPTOP CHIEF'S 'TECHNOLOGICAL BLUNDER'

On the advice of the public records ombudsman, Brenda Kielty, Smith asked the Office of Information Technology to provide the missing content -- a five-month block of emails from Jan. 25 to July 17, 2012 -- from its backup recovery system. The information technology office discovered the emails did not reside on the state's servers and therefore were not backed up there. The office reported that Mao had told them he was accessing his email using the Post Office Protocol, or POP, in which emails passed through the state server but didn't actually reside there and therefore were not backed up there.

As the ombudsman and Maine Sunday Telegram began making inquiries of the department, Mao informed Kielty on Feb. 27 that he had found an old backup and revealed that his hard drives were kept at his residence. After initially saying he was having trouble moving the emails from an archive, he announced the following day that he'd found them on his laptop computer after all.

(Continued on page 2)

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