Top Obama Administration Officials Use Secret Government E-mails

by Katherine Howell

It seems that “Richard Windsor” is not an anamoly. That was the alias former EPA head Lisa Jackson used in an e-mail account to conduct official government business. (Richard Windsor also turned out to be the EPA’s highest-achieving non-existent employee, as Eliana Johnson reported yesterday.)

In response to the revelations about Jackson’s secret e-mail account, the Associated Press decided to dig into the practice in other government agencies. But administration officials have been less than forthcoming, the AP reveals:

The scope of using the secret accounts across government remains a mystery: Most U.S. agencies have failed to turn over lists of political appointees’ email addresses, which the AP sought under the Freedom of Information Act more than three months ago. The Labor Department initially asked the AP to pay more than $1 million for its email addresses. . . .

Ten agencies have not yet turned over lists of email addresses, including the Environmental Protection Agency; the Pentagon; and the departments of Veterans Affairs, Transportation, Treasury, Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Homeland Security, Commerce and Agriculture. All have said they are working on a response to the AP.

The Health and Human Services Department did respond, but reluctantly, omitting the e-mail addresses of Secretary Kathleen Sebelius from the initial list it turned over to the AP. When the news agency objected, HHS gave them three e-mails for Sebelius, including a secret one, which HHS asked not be revealed. The AP disregarded that request, and published the e-mail — [email protected] — “because the secretary is a high-ranking civil servant who oversees not only major agencies like the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services but also the implementation of Obama’s signature health care law.”

The Labor Department had an even more bizarre method of stonewalling:

The Labor Department initially asked the AP to pay just over $1.03 million when the AP asked for email addresses of political appointees there. It said it needed pull 2,236 computer backup tapes from its archives and pay 50 people to pore over old records. Those costs included three weeks to identify tapes and ship them to a vendor, and pay each person $2,500 for nearly a month’s work. But under the department’s own FOIA rules — which it cited in its letter to the AP — it is prohibited from charging news organizations any costs except for photocopies after the first 100 pages. The department said it would take 14 weeks to find the emails if the AP had paid the money.

Fillichio later acknowledged that the $1.03 million bill was a mistake and provided the AP with email addresses for the agency’s Senate-confirmed appointees, including three addresses for Harris, the acting secretary.

The story notes that these are not private e-mail accounts that government employees use to conduct official business, which sometimes improperly occurs, but rather are official government e-mail addresses. Administration officials maintain that it’s necessary to create separate accounts that are not public in order to more efficiently conduct day to day business internal to the department. The obvious problem with this is that if no one outside the agencies knows the accounts exist, then FOIA requests for documents or outside investigations won’t be able to target them.

The answer to this objection from the Labor Department and HHS officials was essentially “trust us.” They maintained that the agencies always voluntarily searched secret as well as public e-mail accounts in response to requests for information. In a search of hundreds of pages of e-mails released under open-record laws, however, the AP found only one instance of a published e-mail that included a secret e-mail account. 

Just what you’d expect from the “most transparent administration in history.”

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