ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- A number of local officials appear to have accounts for a secretive app that can delete text messages and it's raising new questions about what's going on behind closed digital doors.
Over the last few years, a number of Missouri officials, including former governor Eric Greitens, had been under the microscope for using apps which may automatically delete text messages.
News 4 has discovered that some local leaders, including St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, have accounts for an app called Signal.
“It’s concerning,” said Attorney and political operative Jane Dueker. “It’s a very bad look for someone who basically got into office saying 'I am going to clean up corruption and be transparent,' this is not transparent, it has an appearance of impropriety.”
Dueker, long a critic of County Executive Sam Page, says she was shocked to learn Page has a Signal account on his phone, the same phone he has used to conduct County business.
Download Signal to your cell phone and you can see if any of your contacts has the app, which can send and receive encrypted messages and make phone calls and video chats. Users can enable the messages to automatically disappear after they have been seen.
“I think that voters would wonder, well why would he have it, if not for, sending secret messages,” Dueker said.
The use of apps like Signal have come under fire in recent years, after the state spent nearly $300,000 to defend then-Governor Greitens' office’s use of the app Confide, which automatically deletes messages.
“This idea that with everything we have been through with the Greitens stuff that public officials would be on these apps, it’s irresponsible and I think it’s a slap in the face to voters," Dueker said.
Back in October 2019, now-County Council Chair Lisa Clancy proposed legislation to ban the use of self-deleting apps by St. Louis County public officials and county employees conducting public business.
But the bill has languished. We checked. Clancy--also has the Signal app.
"I don’t know why the legislation hasn’t been moved, it makes you wonder when both he, the CE and the Council Chair are on the Signal app," Dueker said.
Clancy declined to do an on-camera interview Wednesday, but said the legislation had been tabled while the county dealt with the coronavirus. She says she downloaded the app for non-county business related matters.
And that’s an important distinction according to public records experts.
“If it's just a couple of public officials shooting the breeze about private matters, then no, those would not have to be retained,” said Sunshine Law expert attorney Dave Roland. “But if they do get into public business, at that point, they are considered under the law records that are supposed to be retained."
Roland says any discussion of public business, where the records were not retained on Signal would be a no-go.
“As a matter of policy, government officials should not use these kinds of apps, it very likely violates state law,” he said.
“How will the public know whether they are using it for public governmental business. Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” she said.
With the County Executive making big decisions during a pandemic, Dueker says transparency is even more important.
“I think people would be very upset if they thought that pandemic decisions were being discussed over an encrypted app that has the possibility of self-deleting and is out of the view of the public,” she said.
News 4 Investigative Reporter Lauren Trager sent a message to the county executive over the signal app, but he never responded.
We also asked the County Executive's office a number of questions about why he had the app.
Dr. Page and his family have been been under intense threats and harassment through social media and two days ago, his son downloaded the app on Dr. Page’s personal cellphone as a way for the family to communicate. Dr. Page subsequently deleted the app. He did not feel it necessary.
Early in his administration, he instructed his staff not to use any apps such as Signal.
We checked to see if other local leaders had it; turns out prosecutors Wesley Bell and Kim Gardner do have accounts, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, does not.
Friday, News 4 received a response to our Sunshine request for correspondence on Page’s Signal account, in which the office indicated that they did not possess any records responsive to our request.