Congressional overseers seek to determine whether the cabinet agencies under President Obama (specifically the Environmental Protection Agency), who promised “an unprecedented level of openness in government,” have hidden communications about official business with the use of private and alias email accounts.
Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chairman Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), wrote in a Dec. 13 letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson “that you describe fully the nature and extent of this practice.” Chris Horner, author of The Liberal War on Transparency, first discovered the existence of the accounts as he researched the book. He and his colleagues at the Competitive Enterprise Institute have sued for records from the alias accounts.
At the moment the concern is over transparency, although there are countless potentially embarrassing issues that could have been addressed by Jackson and others over the secret email accounts. Among them are regional administrators whose practice is to “crucify” oil and gas companies; EPA’s war against coal companies and utilities; excessive, controversial regulations; and heinous experiments on human beings. Other than that there probably isn’t much to conceal from their critics.
The concerns Upton, Stearns, and other congressional overseers (in addition to Horner) have is whether EPA’s records custodians responded to FOIA requests for Jackson’s correspondence by searching her (and others’) alias accounts for relevant materials. The committee leaders asked Jackson for “a detailed description of EPA’s procedures that ensure that all your ‘internal’ email accounts…are included in any search for responsive information or materials when EPA receives Congressional committee requests for information or documents….”
According to Politico (and EPA’s acknowledgment), Jackson used an email alias of “Richard Windsor,” created by the combination of the name of her dog and her former hometown of East Windsor Township, N.J. A day before Upton and Stearns sent their letter to Jackson, Texas Rep. Ralph Hall, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, received an explanation from EPA after he had sent a request to EPA’s Inspector General to review whether the agency complied with the Freedom of Information Act and Federal Records Act.
“Given the large volume of emails sent to the public account — more than 1.5 million in fiscal year 2012, for instance — the secondary email account is necessary for effective management and communication between the Administrator and colleagues,” Associate Administrator Arvin Ganesan said in the Dec. 12 letter, which was provided by EPA to Politico. He explained that the practice is “commonly employed in both the public and the private sector.”
Clearly Jackson’s flacks are trying to play the congressmen for fools. Her email address for the public to use is “firstname.lastname@example.org,” which are probably messages she never sees. The only reason to use an alias that not only is a completely different name, but also a different gender, is to throw any curious outside parties off track about who’s actually involved in the conduct of internal government business. Proper formatting of an alternative email address for Jackson would have been to simply rearrange her name, use initials, or some other identifiable construct.
Other government watchdogs weren’t buying the reasons for the “Windsor” alias either.
“I don’t know any other agency that does this,” said Anne Weismann, chief counsel of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, to Politico. “Why would you pick a fictitious name of someone of different gender? To me it smacks of…trying to hide.”
Horner said the excuses were inventions to avoid transparency. In a piece for the Washington Examiner last month, he recounted how Jackson’s counterpart during the Clinton administration, Carol Browner, also maintained an extra email account. When people armed with FOIA requests asked for her electronic records, it turned out that upon search and examination that Browner’s hard drive, amazingly, had been “reformatted.”
He sees a similar pattern developing with the Obama administration, for two reasons.
“One reason is a demonstrated bureaucratic practice of inventing excuses to not search or produce certain files when they don’t want them released,” Horner wrote. “Another is that Obama officials have moved government over to private email accounts, private computers and even privately owned and managed servers. All of these acts indicate a desire to hide what the supposedly most transparent administration in history is up to.”
After Rep. Hall’s request, the EPA Inspector General initiated an audit of the handling of the agency’s electronic records. As the Congressman wrote, “unfortunately, time and again, actions by the Administration on transparency have fallen far short of the President’s rhetoric, in many instances trending away from transparency and toward greater secrecy.”
Hall’s letter (also signed by five other Republican House members) cited similar examples to evade transparency that were employed by employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Department of Energy’s Loan Program Office. In the case of the latter, Hall noted how the House Energy and Commerce Committee discovered that “at least fourteen DOE officials used non-government accounts to communicate about the loan guarantee program and other public business.” NLPC has detailed many puzzling and outright absurd examples of crony capitalism and inappropriate awards of Recovery Act funds to corporations for the ostensible purpose of creating “green jobs.”
That top officials throughout the Obama administration utilized deeply disguised email accounts may or may not reveal more troublesome conduct, and ought to be explored further. But whether it does or not, there’s already plenty of evidence in the public record that the ethical compass was (and is) broken.
Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center and publishes CarolinaPlottHound.com, an aggregator of North Carolina news.