EPA cracks under pressure to disclose secret emails

Dec 14, 2012

In response to a lawsuit filed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has agreed to release 12,000 emails suspected to be from an “alias” email account belonging to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

The emails are from a government account under the name “Richard Windsor,” which internal EPA sources tipped off CEI as being one of several accounts Jackson uses that is not traceable to her personally. According to Christopher Horner, CEI senior fellow, Jackson would be able to use an alias account to hide any correspondence she wished to conceal from public disclosure laws.

“It is to hide the fact that her correspondence was her correspondence,” said Horner. “People recreating the agency’s activities… would have no ideas about her [correspondence].”

CEI, a conservative nonprofit public policy organization, sued EPA in September when its May request for the documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) were denied by the agency. All emails from the “Richard Windsor” account containing the keywords “coal,” “climate,” and “endanger,” (among others) were requested. Both CEI’s original request and an appeal were rejected by EPA.

A request for comment from EPA was not returned.

EPA’s change of course comes as the agency is falling under increasing scrutiny for a lack of transparency, especially regarding its communication policies. In November, Congressional Science Committee Chairman Ralph Hall, R-TX, sent a letter to EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr. documenting widespread government use of personal emails and aliases for government business, and requesting an investigation into the extent of EPA’s use of the practice.

“The use of these accounts could seriously impair records collection, preservation, and access, thereby compromising transparency and oversight,” wrote Hall. Hall also pointed out that the practice of using personal and alias email accounts to conduct government business could violate the Federal Records Act, the Presidential Records Act and FOIA, as well as President Obama’s 2010 Executive Memorandum calling for increased transparency in government.

“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,” concluded Hall.

The letter was signed by five other Republican congressmen.

Many federal employees maintain multiple email accounts to separate highvolume correspondence with the public from internal

business. However, federal law requires that personal or secondary email accounts can only be used for official business if they are documented and the correspondence is preserved for government record keeping.

Horner claims that EPA has tried to downplay the issue by maintaining that secondary accounts are necessary to filter out thousands of public emails. But Horner isn’t buying.

“Their spin doesn’t work,” he says, adding that there is no reason why a secondary account should be maintained under an alias that is different from the government employee’s name.

According to Horner, using alias email accounts to skirt federal open records laws is symptomatic of a much wider problem within the current administration. He claims that government business is being conducted in secret on personal email accounts, personal computers, and even personal servers—all of which fall outside of the federal records system—at levels Horner calls “epidemic.”

“The Solyndra project was executed on 14 separate private email accounts by government officials,” Horner points out, referring to a House Energy and Commerce Committee investigation into the bankrupt solar panel company that received $1.4 billion in government loans.

On a similar note, Hall’s letter cites instances in which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Department of Energy, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Police were all discovered to be involved in concealing government business through similar tactics.

Horner first took interest in the issue while doing research for his recently published book, “The Liberal War on Transparency,” in which he traced the practice of using private email accounts as far as Clinton-era EPA Administrator Carol Browner. Horner unearthed a 2008 memo sent from EPA to the national archivist identifying secondary nonpublic email accounts established by Browner that were set to “auto-delete,” effectively eliminating all record of correspondence 90 days after the last modification. The memo states that “[f]ew EPA staff members, usually only high-level senior staff, even know that these accounts exist,” and that it would be impossible to recover most of the emails sent and received by the accounts.

Horner maintains that the Obama administration has perpetuated a culture of secrecy.

“The entire point of the ‘most transparent administration ever’ is plainly to avoid creating records where possible,” Horner said. “When they have to create a record, they throw obstacles in your path so you can’t see it, and when you’re on to it, … they destroy the records. So, we’ve got a problem.”

Jackson’s EPA has been strongly criticized by conservatives and industry groups (including the livestock industry) for administratively imposing heavy-handed regulations without congressional approval. By contrast, the agency has been celebrated by environmental special-interest groups for its “get tough” attitude on reducing pollutants. As the “Richard Windsor” emails are released over the next several months, both critics and supporters of EPA will, without a doubt, be watching closely to determine whether the agency is steering into murky waters or is living up to the administration’s strict transparency mandate.

For Christopher Horner, the moment of truth is long past due.

“This is about informing the public about what’s going on in […] the most expensive, devastating regulatory agenda ever, that was rejected by the democratic process.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent, http://andyrieber.com