New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said he plans to look into reports that staff members at the state’s child welfare agency are using an app with encrypted messaging and routinely deleting their communications.
“It is highly concerning that public employees are potentially deleting public information without a thorough legal process, and we are reviewing the matter,” Balderas said in a statement issued Wednesday.
He made those comments hours before state House Republicans sent him a letter requesting he look into the matter, which involves the state Children, Youth and Families Department’s use of Signal.
That letter — signed by Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia; Republican Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington; and Caucus Chief Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences — questions whether Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office or other state agencies also use the communications app.
House Republicans said an investigation is needed to “determine whether the use of the app — which essentially makes the work of CYFD untraceable — is in violation of the Public Records Act and in violation of other laws which guarantee the people access to public documents and which prohibit the destruction of those same public records.”
Asked if any other state agency uses Signal, Matt Nerzig, a spokesman for Lujan Grisham, responded in an email: “no.”
Searchlight New Mexico reported Tuesday the Signal app has been used by CYFD leaders since the outset of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago.
Signal ensures all communication is encrypted end to end, so no outside party can access messages or group chats. Searchlight reported the app can set chats to automatically delete, making them inaccessible under the state’s open-records laws.
Some of the Signal messages were between the child welfare agency’s employees — communication that might fall under open-records act guidelines — the news organization reported.
State officials have defended the use of the app, saying it is necessary to protect private and sensitive information about the agency’s clients — who are children. They also said it is being used by some federal agencies and public-sector organizations.
Speaking by phone Wednesday, Townsend said he still has concerns.
“For an administration — be it Republican or Democrat — to begin secretly communicating public policy and documents and alleviating the possibility of legislators or citizens viewing those communications is very troubling,” he said.
He said efforts to use the app to hide communications “smells terribly. It should stop and it should stop immediately.”