WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mitt Romney spent nearly $100,000 in state funds to replace computers in his office at the end of his term as governor of Massachusetts in 2007 as part of an unprecedented effort to keep his records secret, Reuters has learned.
The move during the final weeks of Romney's administration was legal but unusual for a departing governor, Massachusetts officials say.
The effort to purge the records was made a few months before Romney launched an unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. He is again competing for the party's nomination, this time to challenge Barack Obama for the presidency in 2012.
Five weeks before the first contests in Iowa, Romney has seen his position as frontrunner among Republican presidential candidates whittled away in the polls as rival Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, has gained ground.
When Romney left the governorship of Massachusetts, 11 of his aides bought the hard drives of their state-issued computers to keep for themselves. Also before he left office, the governor's staff had emails and other electronic communications by Romney's administration wiped from state servers, state officials say.
Those actions erased much of the internal documentation of Romney's four-year tenure as governor, which ended in January 2007. Precisely what information was erased is unclear.
Republican and Democratic opponents of Romney say the scrubbing of emails - and a claim by Romney that paper records of his governorship are not subject to public disclosure - hinder efforts to assess his performance as a politician and elected official.
As Massachusetts governor, Romney worked with a Democrat-led state house to close a budget shortfall and signed a healthcare overhaul that required nearly all state residents to buy insurance or face penalties.
Massachusetts' healthcare law became a model for Obama's nationwide healthcare program, enacted into law in 2010. As a presidential candidate, however, Romney has criticized Obama's plan as an overreach by the federal government.
Massachusetts officials say they have no basis to believe that Romney's staff violated any state laws or policies in removing his administration's records.
They acknowledge, however, that state law on maintaining and disclosing official records is vague and has not been updated to deal with issues related to digital records and other modern technology.
BUYING UP HARD DRIVES
Romney's spokesmen emphasize that he followed the law and precedent in deleting the emails, installing new computers in the governor's office and buying up hard drives.
However, Theresa Dolan, former director of administration for the governor's office, told Reuters that Romney's efforts to control or wipe out records from his governorship were unprecedented.
Dolan said that in her 23 years as an aide to successive governors "no one had ever inquired about, or expressed the desire" to purchase their computer hard drives before Romney's tenure.
The cleanup of records by Romney's staff before his term ended included spending $205,000 for a three-year lease on new computers for the governor's office, according to official documents and state officials.
In signing the lease, Romney aides broke an earlier three-year lease that provided the same number of computers for about half the cost - $108,000. Lease documents obtained by Reuters under the state's freedom of information law indicate that the broken lease still had 18 months to run.
As a result of the change in leases, the cost to the state for computers in the governor's office was an additional $97,000.
Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for Romney's presidential campaign, referred questions on the computer leasing deal and records removal to state officials.
Last week, Saul claimed that Deval Patrick, the present Massachusetts governor and a Democrat, was encouraging reports about Romney's records to cast the former governor as secretive. Patrick's office has not responded to that allegation.
STATE REVIEWING RECORDS LAW
The removal of digital records by Romney's staff, first reported by the Boston Globe, has sparked a wave of requests for state officials to release paper records from Romney's governorship that remain in the state's archives.
Massachusetts officials are now reviewing state law to determine whether the public should have access to those records.
The issue is clouded by a 1997 state court ruling that could be interpreted to mean that records of the Massachusetts governor are not subject to disclosure. Romney has asserted that his records are exempt from disclosure.
State officials and a longtime Romney adviser have acknowledged that before leaving office, Romney asked state archives officials for permission to destroy certain paper records. It is unclear whether his office notified anyone from the state before destroying electronic records.
Officials have said the details of Romney's request to remove paper records, such as what specific documents he wanted to destroy, could be made public only in response to a request under the state's freedom of information law. Reuters has filed such a request.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; editing by David Lindsey and David Storey)