Around 45,000 emails were deleted

A new automatic purge function that North Dakota State University officials say may be to blame for more than 45,000 of President Dean Bresciani’s emails being deleted violates the school’s own policies for how long records should be kept.

All emails sent and received by school administrators can’t be deleted for at least one year after the current fiscal year ends, according to the school’s record retention schedule.

But the new function dumps any emails more than a month old in an account’s trash file.

NDSU’s interim chief information officer, Marc Wallman, said school officials haven’t followed their own policy for keeping emails, in part because they weren’t aware of the policy.

“That’s never been our understanding here,” he said.

The emails deleted from Bresciani’s trash bin – sometime in the two weeks leading up to an open records request by the North Dakota Legislative Council on April 29 – were from as recently as from March 29 to as much as three years old.

Those 45,375 emails are now at the heart of a probe by North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem as to whether NDSU violated the state’s open records law. Stenehjem’s office asked NDSU and North Dakota University System officials to turn over information about those emails – plus information on their retention policies – by July 12.

The state’s open records law gives the public the right to inspect the correspondence – including emails – of all public officials, including Bresciani and the other university presidents.

If Stenehjem determines the emails were deleted to avoid public disclosure, he could refer the matter to a state’s attorney for consideration of criminal charges, including a felony for destroying public records. There’s no timetable for Stenehjem’s opinion.

NDSU has maintained from the outset that Bresciani didn’t delete any emails or direct anyone to do so. Wallman said all of the evidence supports their belief that the new automatic purge function was responsible for the deletion.

That new feature was implemented by Microsoft sometime in April to make email run faster and smoother, Wallman said. Email for North Dakota’s 11 public universities and colleges are outsourced to Microsoft.

North Dakota leaves it up to each public entity to set its own schedule for deleting records. NDSU’s retention schedule has three different time windows for when administrative correspondence – which includes emails – can be deleted, ranging from one to six years based on the message’s contents.

With how much email administrators receive, that policy may be impractical, Wallman said. “I don’t think I could comply with that rule,” he said.

The University of North Dakota has a similar policy for emails, spokesman Peter Johnson said, though the school allows employees to immediately delete emails that “contain no significant information” – lunch dates, personal communication and so on.

NDSU policies also say some nonbusiness emails, like those “about things such as lunch plans if no business is conducted at lunch,” aren’t considered records and can be deleted.

Eric Miller, records management coordinator at NDSU, said that moving an email to the trash bin may not be considered deleting a record. That’s where 45,375 of Bresciani’s emails were before school officials say they were inadvertently dumped.

At UND, Johnson said the Outlook trash bin isn’t adequate. “If your intent is to keep it, that’s not the place to store it,” he said.