Politics & Policy

Lisa Jackson’s Gadfly

Something is not right about the EPA’s response to a FOIA request.

Chris Horner is the gadfly determined to force the Obama administration to live up to its professed commitment to transparency. Having exposed outgoing EPA administrator Lisa Jackson’s use of a secondary government e-mail address under the name of “Richard Windsor,” Horner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is bent on bringing to light what Jackson sought to conceal through her use of the false identity. On Monday, the administration responded to Horner’s Freedom of Information Act request, and he received 2,100 of some 12,000 e-mails sent from Jackson’s alias account, with the rest set to arrive in installments of approximately 3,000 a month over the next three months. 

But, having pored over the items, Horner thinks something’s fishy. “The e-mails they released do not resemble the ‘Windsor’ e-mails we have,” Horner says. That address, according to Horner, was known to and used among high-level EPA officials and Jackson’s political confidants, including the man likely to replace her on the job, Bob Perciasepe, whereas the e-mails the EPA sent to the CEI on Monday appear to have come from an account used for more general purposes, such as sending agency-wide e-mail blasts. 

While the EPA has acknowledged the existence of Jackson’s Windsor account, it makes a contention that doesn’t comport with the facts as we know them: that is, that Jackson has only two government e-mail accounts. According to the EPA, Jackson holds only a public account, whose address is posted on the EPA’s website and which hundreds of thousands of people use to contact her, and an internal account, which she uses to correspond with staff and other government officials.

Horner suspects that, despite what the EPA says, Jackson actually has more than one internal account: at least one used to correspond with agency employees at large — the one from which the EPA turned over the documents on Monday — and the Windsor account, used for more sensitive subjects. 

Horner believes that, in protecting the Windsor e-mails, the administration is trying to hide its musings on cap-and-trade, a legislative proposal that never gained broad political support. Acknowledging the legislation’s failure, President Obama was not deterred. “Cap-and-trade was just one way of skinning the cat,” he said. “It wasn’t the only way. It was a means, not an end. And I’m going to be looking for other means to address this problem.”

It’s those means, and other sensitive aspects of the administration’s environmental agenda, that Horner thinks may be hiding in Jackson’s Windsor inbox. A lawyer by training, Horner is an outspoken climate-change skeptic and the author of many books on the subject, and he suspects the EPA is continuing to shield the Windsor correspondence from public view because its contents would be damaging to the administration. “At the most basic level,” he says, “we know they’re hiding correspondence that Jackson and her team felt would be sufficiently troubling to the public or problematic to the agenda if revealed that it was worth creating a false identity to protect it.”

Curiously, while e-mails obtained through a FOIA request by the left-leaning Center for Progressive Reform clearly identify one participant as Richard Windsor, the correspondent’s name is redacted from the messages turned over to Horner on Monday, making it impossible to discern whether the messages are from the Windsor account or yet another Jackson account. The individual is identified only as “Administrator,” purportedly out of a (newfound) need to “preserve the ongoing utility of the e-mail account and to clearly identify the records as being to or from” Jackson.

Though the EPA system shows only the name, not the address, of an e-mail’s sender and recipients, the EPA is refusing to disclose even that information, citing a FOIA exemption that allows the government to withhold information if its disclosure “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” “Is releasing the name Lisa Jackson really a violation of her privacy?” Horner asks. “Why is it not similarly a violation of the personal privacy of anyone else in government whose e-mails are released? And, if it isn’t, why then would the name Richard Windsor be protected? They’re giving stonewalling a bad name.” 

Horner was tipped off to Jackson’s use of the “Richard Windsor” alias by two EPA insiders while he was researching his book The Liberal War on Transparency, and his disclosure sparked concern that her use of a false identity makes it extraordinarily difficult for the government to comply with FOIA requests and federal record-keeping laws.

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has already raised concerns about the very issues Horner is now confronting. While acknowledging that the adoption of non-public e-mail addresses is a relatively standard practice among government officials, then-chairman of the committee Ralph Hall and vice chairman James Sensenbrenner told Jackson in a letter last month, “your choice to use a false identity remains baffling” and raises concerns about “whether the EPA has adequately preserved these records and provided appropriate responses to requests for these records.” Non-public e-mail addresses are held in the names of their owners for the purposes of record keeping and congressional oversight; adopting a false identity poses obvious challenges to the people charged with these tasks. “We also question whether responses to records requests sufficiently connect the alias accounts to the real individual,” Hall and Sensenbrenner wrote. 

For his part, Horner is not cowed. “As Ronald Reagan said, ‘I am paying for this microphone.’ Well, we’re paying for this government,” he says. “These records are all ours unless the government can meet the burden of proof that they are exempt from disclosure.”

— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.

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