Members of the board that regulates doctors asked state health officials and the attorney general to determine whether its former executive director may have violated public records law, after they discovered that e-mails he wrote and received over several years were missing.
Dr. Stancel Riley had been executive director of the Board of Registration in Medicine from 2009 until he resigned under pressure in December, as the governor overhauled a board that had been seen as too lenient.
A Patrick administration spokesman said late Wednesday that analysts recovered Riley’s e-mails from archived files on a computer server and found no evidence records had been “purposefully deleted.” But the spokesman, Alec Loftus, declined to answer questions about how the e-mails were found and why they were missing.
The Globe requested copies of Riley’s e-mails from the second half of 2012 on Jan. 14, but to date, neither the board nor the administration has provided any of the records or any explanation of when they will be made available. Under state public records law, e-mails written in the course of state business must be preserved and may be subject to public review.
The latest episode comes as the medical board’s transparency has been called into question. Last year, the Globe reported that the board routinely kept from public view records detailing infractions by physicians. Most board members have since left or been replaced, though Governor Deval Patrick has not filled three of seven seats on the panel. While the new board is running behind on promised improvements to its physician profiles, a public database of doctors’ disciplinary records, it has vowed to be more open and focused on patient safety.
Riley has not returned multiple messages left for him since December, including several left this week. He hung up without discussing the matter when reached on his cellphone Tuesday.
Soon after Riley’s departure from the board, interim Executive Director Barbara Piselli obtained permission from state administrators to gain access to his computer and to determine whether there was any board business in his e-mail or calendar that needed her attention. She found the calendar to be mostly empty, and e-mails exchanged before late November were missing, she said.
After discussing the matter with board members, Piselli notified the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, and technology specialists recovered Riley’s archived e-mails. But board members asked for clarification about whether the possible deletion of information from Riley’s computer indicated a violation.
“We just wanted to be transparent,” said the chairwoman, Dr. Candace Sloane, who noted that it was not clear how the e-mails went missing.
When the executive office had not answered the board’s question by March 1, despite requests, Dr. Gerald Healy, vice chairman of the medical board and emeritus surgeon in chief at Boston Children’s Hospital, sent his own letter to Attorney General Martha Coakley raising the issue.
“I said to my colleagues [on the board], I’m not comfortable with sitting back and waiting for someone at the State House to respond to e-mail, because we have a concern here, and we need to report this and go on record with another agency,” he said. “I don’t want to unfairly accuse people of doing something they didn’t do or they didn’t intend to do . . . but my job is supposedly to license and discipline doctors and not worry about this stuff.”
On Wednesday, the attorney general’s office forwarded Healy’s letter to the state supervisor of records, who typically reviews such matters.
Late Wednesday, after the Globe informed Loftus that it was about to publish a story about the e-mails, the Patrick administration notified Piselli of its finding that there was no indication of a purposeful deletion.
The state public records policies are complicated, but require employees to preserve much of their correspondence, including e-mail pertinent to state business, for at least three years, depending on the nature of the documents. The internal policy of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services affirms that requirement.
State policy is “fairly clear that it’s the sender or receiver of the e-mail that needs to keep it in an electronic form or print it off and keep it in paper form,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a nonprofit government watchdog.
But, Wilmot said, the level of understanding among state employees about technology and the rules that apply is inconsistent.
Her group is advocating for a bill that would more clearly designate a point person in each agency to assist with preservation of public records and requests for records made by the public.
Nancy Achin Audesse, Riley’s predecessor as medical board director, said she made sure her e-mails were in place when she left the office, knowing that her replacement would need access to them. But, Audesse said, efforts to centralize systems at the state level had complicated attempts to collect and organize board data in her later years on the job.
“I left things, like anyone — you leave things as professionally intact as you can,” she said.
Audesse praised board members for pursuing their concerns about the e-mails.
“They are trying to demonstrate that they have high ethical standards, just as we would expect doctors and hospitals to have,” she said.
“This really demonstrates to me a real commitment from this board to doing what is right.”