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Many Alabama Lawmakers Use Personal Email To Conduct Official Business

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hillary Clinton used a private email account when she was in office, and she's not the only one. In Alabama, more than half the state's House members use their personal email addresses to conduct official business. From member station WBHM, Gigi Douban reports.

GIGI DOUBAN, BYLINE: If you thought AOL and Hotmail were dead, scroll down the list of Alabama lawmakers and check out their contact info. State legislators also list plenty of Gmail and Yahoo addresses and emails tied to their personal websites.

TIM WADSWORTH: I'm just opening up my email box.

DOUBAN: That's Alabama Representative Tim Wadsworth. He pulls out an iPad and an iPhone where he gets emails and texts.

WADSWORTH: The first one says, hi, Representative Wadsworth, I'm a reporter on assignment.

DOUBAN: Hey, that's me.

WADSWORTH: And I'm - need some information about the - how people contact you as a representative. And I think 10:38 a.m., you sent me a message. And I think within a few minutes, I called you right back.

DOUBAN: A few hours later, we're sitting across from each other at a Starbucks. And this, he says, is why he sticks with his personal email, so people can have quick, easy access to him.

WADSWORTH: I use my email a lot. And I don't want to be in a situation where I'm using my government email address for any type of personal business, so I just use everything on my personal.

DOUBAN: Wadsworth says he's afraid he might not get messages as quickly with his state-issued email address. But there's a problem nationwide with using personal emails to conduct public business. In Alabama, lawmakers are subject to state open records laws. Dan Beverly is interim executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

DAN BEVERLY: What we found in many cases is that it is used to conduct public business but to do so in private.

DOUBAN: Beverly says getting access to emails from a third party can be a long process.

BEVERLY: Not only does it take time but it also takes money. You know, time is money.

DOUBAN: Potentially, hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. And with private emails, Beverly says public officials could just delete messages. But not all lawmakers see a transparency problem. Take Alabama Representative David Faulkner. He says comparing state lawmakers using private emails to someone like Hillary Clinton...

DAVID FAULKNER: It's ridiculous. I can't even fathom the link between the two.

DOUBAN: State legislators, he says, are totally different.

FAULKNER: We don't have national secrets. We don't have protected information that's classified.

DOUBAN: But it's not a matter of national secrets, says Gregg Leslie. He's legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

GREGG LESLIE: The dogcatcher, if they're elected or even if they're appointed, has power and makes decisions that affect people's lives. And you want to hold them accountable for what they do.

DOUBAN: Here's one reason lawmakers in Alabama might be worried about their emails coming out, prosecutors are digging into the House Speaker's emails as part of an ongoing corruption case. For NPR News in Birmingham, I'm Gigi Douban. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.