Politics & Policy

E-mail Scandal at the EPA

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson
The Obama administration embraces secrecy and stonewalling.

The sudden announcement that Lisa Jackson, the controversial head of the Environmental Protection Agency, will be resigning later this month means that the mysterious Richard Windsor will be leaving the building with her.

His is apparently one of several fake names on official EPA e-mail accounts that Jackson used to conduct business while at EPA. Her office claims the name is a combination of her dog’s name and that of the town of East Windsor, N.J., where she once lived.

It’s not uncommon for government officials to have private e-mail accounts. But federal law has set up several barriers to prevent officials from using non-official or secret e-mail addresses to conduct business and then conceal the contents of those accounts from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Politico reports that the EPA was supposed to ensure that anyone requesting Jackson’s e-mails under FOIA would also have access to communications from “Richard Windsor.” “But the system is far from foolproof,” it dryly notes.

When the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market group, came up empty on its FOIA requests for Jackson’s e-mails relating to her anti-coal efforts, it was told by an EPA whistleblower that she was using “Richard Windsor” and other aliases to coordinate with outside anti-coal groups and engage in other activity she wouldn’t want to come to light.

After CEI filed suit, the Justice Department last month reluctantly agreed to produce 12,000 “Richard Windsor” e-mails. The first batch is set to be released on January 14. CEI employees told me they expect the e-mails will be heavily redacted to obscure their content, but that House committees headed by Representative Darrell Issa of California and Representative Fred Upton of Michigan will launch probes that will ultimately bring all of the e-mails to light.

Indeed, Representative Upton has written to the EPA demanding to know whether the use of alias e-mail accounts “has in any way affected the transparency of the agency’s activities or the quality or completeness of information provided” to Congress. In response, the office of the EPA’s inspector general has announced that it will investigate to see if “EPA follows applicable laws and regulations when using private and alias e-mail accounts to conduct official business.”

It clearly hasn’t always in the past. In 2000, Clinton EPA administrator Carol Browner responded to a Landmark Legal Foundation FOIA lawsuit by claiming that she didn’t use her government computer for e-mail. But Browner then ordered the hard drive on the computer to be reformatted and all backup tapes destroyed, just hours after a federal judge ordered her agency to preserve all agency e-mails. “EPA vowed it would avoid such problems going forward,” says Chris Horner, a CEI fellow and author of the new book The Liberal War on Transparency. “They clearly haven’t, and neither have other government agencies under Obama, who in 2009 promised us ‘the most honest and transparent administration in history.’”

Horner’s book recounts a series of evasive maneuvers that officials across the entire Obama administration have employed.

When cutting deals to ensure the health-care industry’s support of Obamacare and provide $500 million in green-energy loan guarantees to the now-bankrupt Solyndra solar company, senior administration officials used private e-mail accounts that fell outside federal record-keeping laws. The Solyndra loans were coordinated on 14 separate private e-mail accounts. ABC News reported that Jim Messina, who in 2009 was Obama’s deputy White House chief of staff, coordinated with drug companies a $150 million advertising campaign in support of Obamacare using his private AOL account.

The White House arranged for a privately owned computer server to handle discussions about a controversial United Nations initiative, presumably to ensure that FOIA requests wouldn’t uncover them.

Horner has an affidavit from the government admitting, in defense of its failure to produce certain records from NASA’s climate-change shop, to an elaborate operation involving destruction of the government’s copy of e-mails and other records. On its face, this would seem to violate the federal criminal code. They accomplished this by programming their system to delete e-mails from the government server when they were opened remotely by employees using a private computer; the only remaining traces of the e-mails then existed on the private computer. By denying the government access to search that computer, NASA thereby denied the taxpayer access to records under FOIA.

After some initial attempts at improving FOIA regulations, the Obama administration has decided to embrace secrecy and stonewalling. The Washington Post reported in 2011 that a large number of requests for public records had elicited no material at all from the administration. A National Security Archive survey last year found that “more than 60 percent of federal agencies have failed to update their FOIA regulations” despite directives to do so. The same Barack Obama who as a candidate in 2008 promised that health-care negotiations would be shown on C-SPAN instead cobbled together Obamacare behind closed doors.

Mark Tapscott, the executive editor of the Washington Examiner, has long chronicled how government officials evade laws designed to enhance transparency. He points out that such evasion is rampant because enforcement of FOIA laws rarely occurs. “Nobody in government has ever gone to jail for violating the FOIA,” he points out.

Tapscott is convinced that Lisa Jackson’s sudden departure from EPA had something to do with the burgeoning e-mail scandal on her watch. He considers her resignation a victory for transparency. “She isn’t going to jail, but at least now she won’t be running the EPA under an alias,” he says.

— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for NRO.

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