Hillary, Nicola and the pitfalls of using private emails for official business
By Graham Grant
IN her extensive collection of selfies, surely none is more prized by Nicola Sturgeon than the one featuring Hillary Clinton.
The First Minister, in a show of feminist solidarity, once blamed an ‘air of misogyny’ for her idol’s failure to clinch the US presidency in 2016.
In fact, a better explanation was Mrs Clinton’s use of a private email account for state business, rather than an official government address.
The resulting outcry provides a more convincing reason than ‘misogyny’ for her eventual defeat by Donald Trump, who branded her ‘crooked’.
James Comey, then the FBI chief, called Mrs Clinton’s decision to email from a private account ‘extremely careless’ four months before the vote, but recommended no charges.
A State Department inquiry has found the practice was a security risk, and that 38 unnamed people were ‘culpable’ in 91 cases of sending classified information.
Those involved may face disciplinary action – if they still work for the government.
Now Miss Sturgeon finds herself at the centre of a similar controversy, after it emerged she also used a private email account for government-related matters.
It was revealed last week that civil servants had been ordered in 2015 to contact Miss Sturgeon on her SNP account for ‘urgent’ business outside office hours.
Scottish Labour has written to the First Minister, and to Daren Fitzhenry, the independent Commissioner responsible for enforcing freedom of information (FOI) law.
Labour MSP Elaine Smith and Scottish Tory MSP Donald Cameron have urged Miss Sturgeon to publish all emails related to her role as head of the Scottish Government.
There are strict rules around data retention on government email systems that do not apply to a political party’s server.
For her part, Miss Sturgeon has said that she does not ‘generally use email to do government business’, and that she usually did so on paper.
Her spokesman accused Labour of smear and innuendo, saying: ‘As we have made clear, the FM’s [First Minister] personal email is used to flag urgent, out of hours issues, which would normally relate to diary matters, such as travel arrangements.’
But as former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has pointed out, the party address is ‘regulated by SNP chief executive Peter Murrell – who happens to be her husband – and emails can be deleted without consequence’.
By contrast, the First Minister’s government address is regulated by the FOI Commissioner, and is therefore open to potential public scrutiny.
The growing calls for the content of those emails hitherto shielded from view to be published are entirely legitimate.
Perhaps a committee of inquiry should be launched to pore over the material, which could be a monumental task.
In the US, State Department investigators reviewed thousands of pages of documents sent from 2009 to 2013, when Mrs Clinton was secretary of state, and took statements from hundreds of past and present department officials.
It was an exercise dismissed by her camp as a ‘pointless crusade’, but one that may well have been decisive in her downfall.
Incidentally, Mrs Clinton herself is now in the middle of a row over disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, an alleged sex offender – and Democrat donor.
One of his accusers claims the former presidential candidate ‘protected’ Weinstein, after it was claimed that she pulled out of an interview with investigative reporter Ronan Farrow, as he prepared to break the story of the sex scandal.
One of her aides was said to have expressed ‘concern’ over the journalist’s Weinstein enquiries.
For now, Mrs Clinton, who rejects those claims, remains a feminist icon for selfie-seekers, including Miss Sturgeon.
But the pair’s use of private emails may be an even stronger connection between them.
The number of emails that might have been accumulated by Miss Sturgeon over the last four years is anyone’s guess.
But her habit of using her SNP email doesn’t fit well with her commitment to more transparent government when she was appointed First Minister five years ago – one that looks increasingly hollow.
Back then, you might remember that she insisted her tenure would be ‘open, listening, accessible and decentralising’.
Yet last week, Mr Fitzhenry disclosed a massive increase in the number of complaints regarding FOI requests received by his office.
He said he had been forced to rule against public authorities – including the Scottish Government and Police Scotland – in nearly two-thirds of cases.
Serious systemic failure was found at the Scottish Government, following concerns raised by journalists over FOI practices, and the involvement of special advisers in the release of information.
This led to an investigation which found Miss Sturgeon’s top adviser ‘deliberately’ and ‘unjustifiably’ delayed the release of politically sensitive material.
Nothing much about this administration, or the publicly-funded quangos for which it is ultimately responsible, could be described accurately as ‘accessible’, or ‘open’.
Many of those bodies suppress information about any number of embarrassing secrets, from eye-watering golden goodbyes to costly junkets, frequently flouting FOI laws.
Any inquiry into the Sturgeon emails might have to be extended into the shadowy corners of quangoland: how many fat cats in charge of those arm’s-length organisations have resorted to using their private emails?
Meanwhile, another inquiry is laying the groundwork for a wide-ranging probe at Holyrood, into the Scottish Government’s handling of misconduct complaints against Alex Salmond.
There is already concern that evidence relating to that process, which resulted in a successful judicial review against the government by Salmond, might have been irretrievably lost, according to Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans.
A separate investigation is taking place to determine if Miss Sturgeon breached the ministerial code in meetings and conversations with Salmond before the court case.
One of its key objectives will be to establish the nature of the repeated interaction between the First Minister and her former mentor as that internal investigation progressed.
There is a sense that the inner workings of a government which ran its affairs behind a veil of secrecy for more than a decade are now being exposed to the harsh sunlight of media and political exposure.
Ministers and their officials have become so accustomed to operating in this way, with relative impunity, that they may have come to believe the chickens would never come home to roost.
But now they could be making their way with alarming speed towards Bute House, where the current occupier would do well to reflect on Mrs Clinton’s experience.
The ‘pointless crusade’ about her emails contributed to her demise as a contender for the job of leader of the free world.
But there’s no doubt her entire campaign was also marred by hubristic complacency, and a disconnect from the priorities of ordinary voters.
Both of these factors have become recognisable characteristics of the final phases of Miss Sturgeon’s lacklustre regime – burdened by the weight of secrets it can no longer keep.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on October 22, 2019.