State agency admits use of encrypted message app

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

A state agency involved in a whistleblower lawsuit is admitting use of a phone app that encrypts and automatically deletes text messages, but says it did not retaliate against a former employee in firing her.

Stephanie Ramage, former Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency public affairs officer, filed an October complaint in Fulton Superior Court accusing agency leadership and staff of violating the Georgia Open Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act by using the secure messaging app, Signal.

Ramage says in her lawsuit that she was fired for objecting to the use of the app, and said there was widespread activity on Signal in “the executive branch and agencies of the State of Georgia.

The Attorney General’s Office is serving as legal counsel to the agency. Officials with the Georgia First Amendment Foundation said Friday that an independent attorney should investigate the allegations.

The agency’s response disputes several claims made in Ramage’s lawsuit, and denies violating the state law that gives the public access to government records. But the agency’s acknowledged use of Signal for government business appears to speak to the heart of her accusations.

Thursday, the Attorney General’s office acting as counsel released a response which says agency Executive Director Chris Wells told Ramage “that he and other GVRA leadership started using Signal during the pandemic.”

The Attorney General’s office did not return messages from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday and Friday.

ExploreWhistleblower lawsuit claims state agency violating open records law by use of Signal app

Citing a part of Ramage’s complaint, the agency’s response admits Georgia law “provides in part that ‘an agency’s use of electronic record-keeping systems must not erode the public’s right of access to records ...’”

But the agency’s legal response said it denies a line in a section of Ramage’s complaint that reads: “Georgia’s open records law further prohibits the use of systems that fail to preserve documents.”

Similar to the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, Ramage’s attorney, Andrew Y. Coffman, said he sees the use of a message destroying app as a violation of the state’s open records law.

“It’s hard to know what this means for news organizations,” Coffman said. “There is an inevitable conflict to acknowledge that the Signal app was used, and at the same time to say that it doesn’t violate the Open Records Act. That’s a conflict that’s difficult to reconcile for anybody — lawyers or lay person.”

Coffman noted that Gov. Brian Kemp banned the use of TikTok, WeChat and Telegram on laptops, mobile phones and other devices issued, owned, leased or otherwise controlled by the state or used for state business.

“I think it’s interesting that he didn’t take the opportunity to ban the use of others, what I would characterize as potentially nefarious applications,” he said.

Richard T. Griffiths, spokesman for Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said if Ramage’s allegations are true, they suggest a violation of both state and federal open records laws because the agency disperses federal funds.

“It’s hard to fathom how the GVRA found it necessary to use Signal, an encrypted ephemeral app, to do it’s business,” Griffiths said. “If the allegations are true, it would appear to be a deliberate attempt to thwart the public’s right to know what’s happening in that agency.”

Griffiths said that after learning of the legal case from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the foundation wants a third party to investigate the allegations.

“It’s really disconcerting to me to see the Attorney General responsible for prosecuting allegations of violations of the Open Records Act, and at the same time to defend the agency (accused of) violating the act,” he said.

Griffiths pointed to a 2018 complaint filed with Attorney General Chris Carr by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News, alleging the city of Atlanta was violating the Georgia Open Records Act. The dispute was resolved through the state Open Government Mediation Program.

“That was an appropriate use of that office to do that,” said Griffiths.