Mike Pence used private email for state business while Indiana governor

Vice President Mike Pence came under fire Thursday night after it was revealed that he used a private email address to conduct official business on behalf of the citizens of Indiana.

The Indianapolis Star revealed that Pence’s private AOL account, which was hacked last summer, contained work-related emails, including a number concerning sensitive issues and confidential information.

A total of 29 emails were released by Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb’s office to reporters last week in response to a public records request made nearly four months before Pence left office. Those emails show that Pence used the account to discuss “topics ranging from security at the governor’s residence to the state’s response to terror attacks across the globe.”

Pence’s office in Washington, which could not be immediately reached for comment, told a Star reporter that Pence indeed used both a personal and state email account. “As Governor, Mr. Pence fully complied with Indiana law regarding email use and retention,” a spokesperson said. “Government emails involving his state and personal accounts are being archived by the state consistent with Indiana law, and are being managed according to Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act.”

As the Star notes, Indiana law did not prohibit Pence from using a personal email address, but any messages pertaining to public business are supposed to be retained on a state server for access under the Indiana Freedom of Information Act.

Pence’s office said he did not turn over the work emails from his private account until he was leaving office, however, and a spokesperson said they were reviewed by an outside attorney paid for by his campaign.

This means that documents released by the governor’s office in response to public records requests prior to this event could not have included the work emails from Pence’s private account.

Pence was hacked

The Star revealed last summer that Pence’s personal email account had been compromised in an article titled, “No, Mike Pence is not stranded in the Philippines.”

The report stated that Pence’s AOL account was hacked by “a scammer” who pretended to be Pence and his wife, Karen, and claimed they were trapped in the Philippines without any money. “I’m urgently in need of some money to pay for our hotel bills and my flight ticket home, will definitely REFUND as soon as back home,” the fake email said.

Pence apologized for “any inconvenience” and told reporters that he had changed his AOL account. It is unknown how many work-related messages were sent from or received by this account. However, the emails disclosed this past week show that Pence’s email account contained work emails, including an unknown number of “confidential” messages which are currently withheld from the public.

Naturally, this occurence has drawn accusations of hypocrisy from Pence critics, who recall his fierce attacks on Hillary Clinton over her use of a private server. Pence Spokesman Marc Lotter rejected the comparison by calling it “absurd,” while noting that, as governor, Pence didn’t handle classified information, as Clinton did while heading the U.S. State Department.

The wrong refugees

In one email to Pence, his homeland security advisor, John Hill, writes that he “received an update from the FBI regarding the individuals arrested for supporting ISIS.” Hill also noted that, “Both of the earlier referenced refugees are reported now as ‘Iraqi’ — not Syrian.”

In this instance, the information Hill is referring to is likely not sensitive, as the date of the email corresponds with news of two Iraqi refugees being arrested on terrorism charges in Texas and California—Aws Mohammed Younis Al-Jayab, 23, and Omar Faraj Saeed Al Hardan, 24.

Al-Jayab was indicted last March after revealing to an FBI source plans to travel overseas and fight for ISIS. He reportedly entered the U.S. as an Iraqi refugee in October 2012 before traveling to Syria via Turkey. Investigators found no evidence Al-Jayab ever planned an attack in America, according to a complaint.

Al Hardan entered the U.S. as an Iraqi refugee in 2009 and was convicted in October of attempting to provide material support to ISIS. In 2014, he spent an hour with an FBI informant receiving training with an AK-47; on social media he said he was “against America” and claimed he wanted to blow himself up; and upon arrest was discovered with an ISIS flag and various training CDs that piqued the FBI’s interest, including one about assembling remote detonators.

Hill’s note to Pence about the two men being “not Syrian” possibly refers to a lawsuit Pence was embroiled in at the time. Pence had attempted to block federal money from reaching a nonprofit—Exodus Refugee Immigration—which aids in the resettlement of Syrian refugees in his state.

A U.S. district judge ruled soon after that Pence’s policy was both discriminatory and “in no way directly, or even indirectly, promotes the safety of Indiana citizens.”

The confidential emails

Certain emails were not turned over to reporters because the Holcomb administration claims they are “deliberative or advisory, confidential under rules adopted by the Indiana Supreme Court or the work product of an attorney,” as the Star reports.

It’s impossible to report on the substance of these emails; however, Pence has been sued already for preventing the disclosure of his work emails using this precise argument. The first lawsuit followed a 2014 records request made by William Groth, an area labor attorney.

Groth had filed a request information regarding Pence’s decision to hire a private law firm—the Indianapolis-based Barnes & Thornburg—for a lawsuit against the Obama administration, led by Texas Gov. Greg Abbot. Several states with conservative governors had joined forces to challenge the Obama policy of offering deferred enforcement of immigration laws for parents of children born in the United States, and children who entered the country before the age of 16.

In response to Groth’s request, Pence’s office produced 57 pages of responsive records that were heavily redacted. Included was an email from Abbott’s chief of staff to 30 recipients asking them to join the lawsuit against Obama, but Pence’s office withheld a white paper that was attached to the email, which it claimed was “deliberative material” and thus not subject to the public records law.

Groth went to court to argue for access to the document, which contains GOP legal theories challenging Obama’s immigration policy. However, the Indiana Superior Court ruled that it had no authority to overturn the governor’s decision, citing another public records case that experts claim has set a dangerous legal precedent. Groth took the case to the case to the Court of Appeals where he again lost.

Groth has petitioned the Indiana Supreme Court to review the case, arguing that the appeals court improperly ruled that a document shared among 30 email recipients is protected by attorney-client privilege.

On Monday, Pence petitioned the court to ignore Groth’s petition and allow the lower court’s ruling to stand. If the Supreme Court takes the case, it could, the Star reports, “redefine the bounds of open, public communications for Indiana’s executive office.”

Dell Cameron

Dell Cameron

Dell Cameron was a reporter at the Daily Dot who covered security and politics. In 2015, he revealed the existence of an American hacker on the U.S. government's terrorist watchlist. He is a co-author of the Sabu Files, an award-nominated investigation into the FBI's use of cyber-informants. He became a staff writer at Gizmodo in 2017.