Before Mitt Romney's term as governor of Massachusetts ended in January 2007, his aides bought their state-issued computer hard drives for $65 each, replaced every computer in the office and wiped all e-mails from the office server.

As a result, the scores of people who call the office of current Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, to request electronic records from the Romney administration are out of luck, The Boston Globe reported on Thursday.

The governor's office has found no emails from 2002-2006 in our possession, Mark Reilly, Governor Patrick's chief legal counsel, said in a statement. Before the current administration took office, the computers used during that time period were replaced and the server used during that time period was taken out of service, all files were removed from it, and it was also replaced.

A spokesman for Romney -- who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, just after stepping down as governor, and is now running for the 2012 nomination -- defended the administration's destruction of its email records, saying it was perfectly legal for staffers to buy their hard drives before leaving their jobs, especially because they did so transparently, with personal checks.

The longstanding practice in the governor's office was to give employees the option to buy old equipment when they were leaving office, and certain employees, including me, did that, Mark Nielsen, Romney's former chief legal counsel, told The Globe. But those purchases were in conformance with the law and with longstanding executive branch practice.

Was Removing State Records, Legal?

But other officials said the legality of the practice was questionable.

Information that was generated in the administration belongs to the people of the Commonwealth, unless it was personal in nature, said Pam Wilmot, the executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a nonpartisan group that advocates for open government. There is a place for purchasing of surplus property, but there are procedures to do that, and it seems that we are, as a Commonwealth, losing something if all records were deleted.

The problem, then, was not that aides were allowed to purchase their state-issued hard drives but that the records from those hard drives were not preserved anywhere else. Also, even the computers that aides chose not to purchase were replaced before Patrick took office, and wiping all emails from the server was unnecessary if the process was just about letting employees keep their old equipment.

All I can tell you is we fully complied with the law and complied with longstanding executive branch practice, Nielsen said. Nothing unusual was done.

But Massachusetts public records law states clearly that state records may not be destroyed without the permission of the Records Conservation Board and that whenever a records custodian relinquishes his office or terminates his duties as records custodian, he shall deliver over to his successor all such public records that he is not authorized by law to retain.

Secretary of State William Galvin said that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 1997 that the public records law did not require the governor's office to release emails to the public. It does, however, require the governor to preserve emails and give them to the state archives before leaving office, just as he or she is required to do with paper records. There are between 700 and 800 boxes of paper records from the Romney administration in the state archives.

They have an obligation as a public official to preserve their records, Galvin, a Democrat, told The Globe. Electronic records are held to the same standard as paper records. There's no question. They're not in some lesser standard.

He added that Romney's staffers consulted the Massachusetts Records Conservation Board before Romney's term ended and received permission to destroy some records that were determined to be redundant -- but that wouldn't include every email the administration ever sent.