No easy exit for Jackson as allegations build

Feb 1, 2013

As Lisa Jackson takes her final bows as the nation’s top environmental overseer following her announcement last month that she will be resigning from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Republican lawmakers are scrambling to get to the bottom of a possible agency scandal involving the use of alias email accounts before Jackson manages to exit the administrative stage.

Jackson is at the center of an expanding investigation into the use of secondary email accounts within EPA, which was triggered by a lawsuit seeking disclosure of over 12,000 government emails Jackson sent and received through a “. gov” email account registered to the name “Richard Windsor.”

In the latest development of the snowballing allegations surrounding Jackson, EPA’s release of 2,100 emails two weeks ago in response to a court order has attracted further suspicion due to the fact that the name on the released emails had been blacked out, making it impossible to verify that the emails came from Jackson’s account.

Christopher Horner, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), blasted the move as an ill-disguised ruse. “It was an utterly, facially absurd, impermissible redaction,” said Horner of EPA’s censorship. “Simply, they were hiding which account they were searching.”

EPA has claimed that it was necessary to black out the accountholder’s name in order to protect Jackson’s personal privacy and the viability of the account. It is unclear, however, how an exemption for personal privacy applies to a .gov email account used to conduct official government business.

Whether the emails in fact came from Jackson’s Richard Windsor account was further drawn into question by the content of the emails, which was devoid of government business, according to Horner.

“It was all chaff,” Horner said. “The only thing they would produce—even in redacted form—were daily press clippings and her own Google search alert about herself.”

A non-profit public policy organization, CEI filed suit against EPA last year when the agency failed to release emails from Jackson’s Richard Windsor account in response to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by Horner. Horner discovered the existence of the account while conducting research for his book “The Liberal War on Transparency.”

Although using a secondary “internal” email account is common practice for government administrators—who can receive thousands of emails a day—critics point out that Jackson’s use of an account under a false identity like “Richard Windsor” could make it nearly impossible for government overseers to trace the emails back to Jackson. Inability to connect government emails with Jackson could obstruct requests for documents from the general public as well as Congress, potentially violating open information laws.

Underlying demands for the Richard Windsor emails are fears that Jackson could be concealing something from the public. Jackson’s four-year tenure in the Obama administration was fraught with controversy over her unprecedented regulation of car emissions and coal power, as well as contentious research on the effects of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” This has led some critics to suspect Jackson maintained overly cozy relationships with influential environmental policy groups, which may be documented in emails held under a false identity.

The Richard Windsor fracas has crystallized doubts among critics that Jackson’s get-tough tactics may have flouted transparency requirements. Jackson is now feeling the blowback from a number of congressional committees to fully disclose her use of the unorthodox email accounts.

The EPA’s repeated failure to comply with these requests has caused some lawmakers to threaten Jackson with a subpoena.

In a letter dated Jan. 23 from Congressman Lamar Smith, R-TX, chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Smith castigated Jackson for dodging two previous requests for disclosure and threatened to take “formal action” if requests are not met.

“The EPA’s continued refusal to respond to a legitimate congressional request is unacceptable,” said the letter, which was signed by five other members of the committee.

Jackson also received a letter in December from House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-MI, and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chair Cliff Stearns, R-FL, asking a slew of pointed questions about her use of the Richard Windsor and other alias email addresses. Upton and Stearns pointed out that over the past two years, the committee had on several occasions requested documents relating to controversial EPA regulatory actions.

“We seek to understand whether conducting business with an alias has in any way affected the transparency of the Agency’s activities or the quality or completeness of information provided…” stated the letter.

Congressional frustration with EPA’s lack of responsiveness has triggered an investigation into the practice of using private and alias email accounts by the EPA’s inspector general. The audit, initiated last month in response to a congressional request, will seek to determine what sort of practices and training EPA uses with regard to secondary email accounts, including whether EPA “[p] romoted or encouraged the use of private or alias email accounts to conduct official government business.”

It remains to be seen whether congressional tough talk will persuade EPA to produce all of the emails being requested, and in unredacted form. But EPA’s stubborn reluctance to make the documents public suggests that congressional members may have to make good on their threats in order to find out what sort of correspondence Richard Windsor maintained.

For the meantime, Horner is not making any accusations about what Jackson’s motive in creating a false identity might have been. “I don’t know what the intention was,” said Horner. “But I know the one, inescapable [...] outcome; and that was to frustrate transparency laws.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent,