The emails released by the Environmental Protection Agency pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request, that sought communications under a nom de plume for Administrator Lisa Jackson, only heightened the agency’s obfuscation according to the man who went to court to demand them.
On Monday EPA made public approximately 2,100 emails (far short of the promised 3,000) from Jackson’s disguised account, which she used under the alias “Richard Windsor.” Chris Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who had discovered the administrator’s fake identity while researching his book The Liberal War on Transparency, said the contents of the messages were unrevealing and contained useless information such as Google alerts and Washington Post news digests. According to CNSNews.com, the release is the first of an expected four batches that is expected to contain 12,000 emails from Jackson’s alternative account.
“Perhaps seeking to take the air out of a growing scandal,” Horner said, “EPA’s defective compilation boasts an impressively anemic content-to-volume ratio.” He added that EPA figured it “had to produce a lot of something. Desperate to produce nothing at the same time, it came up with this.”
In addition, of the emails Horner did receive, the EPA redacted the “Windsor” identity from the messages. Blacking out the name creates uncertainty whether EPA actually searched (under FOIA) Jackson’s alias account, her own account (firstname.lastname@example.org), or possibly another. Sen. David Vitter didn’t find the EPA’s weak attempts at compliance acceptable.
“This strikes me as incredibly fishy and begs a number of important questions,” said the Louisiana Republican, who is ranking minority member on the Environment and Public Works Committee. “The EPA needs to honor the President’s pledge of transparency and release these documents without redaction of the Administrator’s email address – a big first step toward removing the blanket of secrecy in this agency.”
According to Vitter’s office, EPA justified redaction of the email address Jackson used by citing a FOIA exemption that is only to be used to protect personal privacy, which Vitter said does not apply to this case.
Because EPA invoked the exemption by redacting the identity used on Jackson’s email account, Vitter further wondered “whether EPA made a material misrepresentation to Congress” in response to previous House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Chairman Ralph Hall last month. The Texas Republican and GOP committee colleagues had requested EPA’s Inspector General Arthur Elkins to review whether the agency complied with the Freedom of Information Act and Federal Records Act. Simultaneously they sent a similar letter to Jackson requesting all records related to “Richard Windsor” and other aliases used by her and by EPA senior management, as well as all records that pertained to the creation of the alias accounts. Elkins soon confirmed that he would open an inquiry.
The EPA, however, acted as though the use of alias accounts was routine while not providing the records that Hall and the Science committee requested.
“Given the large volume of emails sent to (Jackson’s) 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 wrote in EPA’s Dec. 12 response to the Science Committee, which was provided by EPA to Politico. He explained that the practice is “commonly employed in both the public and the private sector.” Unsurprisingly, Hall and his committee colleagues were unsatisfied.
“While we understand the need for a secondary account for management and communications purposes,” the members wrote on December 18, “your choice to use a false identity remains baffling. We remain concerned about whether EPA has adequately preserved these records and provided appropriate responses to requests for these records. We also question whether responses to records requests sufficiently connect the alias accounts to the real individual.”
Following Monday’s unrevealing, heavily redacted release, Vitter also challenged whether EPA adequately and properly searched the proper databases for Jackson’s/“Windsor’s” records. He said the precedent for multiple email accounts is defined in a 2008 memo to the National Archives and Records Administration, which explained that “secondary e-mail accounts are configured so the account holder’s name appears in the ‘sent by’ field.” Clearly a name like “Richard Windsor” does not meet that standard for “Lisa Jackson,” but even if it did and was routine operating procedure, there would be no need to redact the identity from the emails that EPA disclosed to Horner.
“EPA’s supposed reliance on ‘precedent’ is especially misleading because they’re clearly using a separate and distinct practice than previous Administrations,” Vitter said. “And if ‘Richard Windsor’ is no more than a standard work email account, why not share the unredacted versions and prove it to the American public?”
A former Bush administration official, Bradley Blakeman, suggested on Fox News in November that anti-transparency motives were behind the deceptive Jackson identity.
“What good reason,” he posited, “if we use common sense, would there be for a high government official to have a fictitious email account?”
As for Horner and Competitive Enterprise Institute, they plan to ask the Justice Department to “right EPA’s ship,” and if that fails, then they will ask the court, according to CNSNews.com. An EPA official told the news site that the agency did indeed produce records from the “Windsor” account and that more would be forthcoming. But CEI and Horner, in comparing to emails they already have, say what EPA just produced matches Jackson’s traditional secondary account (presumably with her accurate identity) and not the “Richard Windsor” account, which they say confirms that Jackson had other email accounts she used at EPA.
Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center and publishes CarolinaPlottHound.com, an aggregator of North Carolina news.