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Vitter Accuses Inspector General of Providing Cover for EPA in Investigation

“Remarkably, in conducting its investigation of EPA email practices, the OIG never examined, in any way, actual staff emails."

by
Bill Straub

Bio

February 26, 2014 - 12:12 am

WASHINGTON – Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee are condemning an inspector general’s report exonerating Environmental Protection Agency officials in the case of using unofficial email addresses to hide their dealings from public scrutiny.

In a letter to Arthur A. Elkins Jr., the agency’s inspector general, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), the panel’s ranking member, charged that the probe was not only insufficient but that it was conducted in a manner “that inappropriately provided cover for EPA’s problematic email practice.”

Vitter expressed concern over the scope of the OIG investigation, cited flaws in the office’s methodology and maintained investigators arrived at questionable conclusions despite evidence to the contrary.

“Remarkably, in conducting its investigation of EPA email practices, the OIG never examined, in any way, actual staff emails. As it turns out, the OIG handled the process in such a way that inappropriately provided cover for certain EPA officials.”

Vitter advised Elkins to “strengthen your responsiveness to Congress and independence from the agency to most effectively serve the American people.”

At issue is an inspector general’s audit, released last September, regarding the practice of some EPA officials, including former agency administrator Lisa Jackson, who circumvented the official email system and instead communicated through private addresses. Jackson used a secondary account under the name “Richard Windsor” to conduct EPA business.

In initially requesting a probe into the practice, former Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican who then chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the panel was concerned about the agency’s transparency, noting that the EPA could theoretically be arriving at under-the-table deals with corporations or individuals outside congressional oversight capabilities.

EPA Associate Administrator Arvin Ganesan responded to concerns in a letter to Stearns’ committee, explaining that the agency’s administrators had been using secondary accounts like Jackson’s for more than a decade, noting that the agency’s official email addresses are posted on the EPA’s website, leading to thousands of emails from the public pouring in every year. Officials adopted the secondary accounts to communicate with one another.

“This practice of maintaining one staff-managed public email address and another secondary address for use by a high-profile individual is commonly employed in both the public and private sector,” Ganesan wrote.

But the practice also drew objections from outside Congress. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based conservative think tank, filed suit against the EPA, seeking e-mails to or from the secondary addresses dealing with climate, coal or Maximum Achievable Control Technology Standards, which deal with emissions reduction.

But critics have made little headway. U.S. Circuit Judge James E. Boasberg dismissed most of the CEI suit, ruling that the organization was simply using “broad claims of bureaucratic conspiracy” and “nitpicking over EPA’s refusal to disclose the spelling of its staff’s personal email addresses.”

And the inspector general’s office announced that it found “no evidence that the EPA used, promoted or encouraged the use of private ‘non-governmental’ email accounts to circumvent records management responsibilities or reprimanded, counseled or took administrative actions against personnel for using private email or alias accounts for conducting official government business.”

The report, based on discussions with senior officials, also held that the secondary email addresses were not adopted to circumvent federal recordkeeping responsibilities. Jackson, it said, was issued two EPA email accounts. One account was made available to the public to communicate with the EPA administrator and the other was used to communicate internally with EPA personnel.

But the OIG acknowledged the system may present record keeping if they are not searched to preserve federal records. It recommended that the agency develop and implement oversight processes to update rules on the use of private email accounts, train employees and contractors on records management responsibilities, strengthen relationships between federal records preservation and employee out processing and deliver a system to create federal records from the new system.

Last year, the EPA launched two pilot projects dealing with email records management. Over the past four years, the inspector general said, the EPA “has taken various actions to close out this agency-level weakness.”

The findings proved unsatisfactory to Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Lawmakers published their own report in September 2013 – “A Call for Sunshine: EPA’s FOI and Federal Records Failures Uncovered.” It concluded that under Jackson, who resigned in December 2012, the EPA developed “a culture of secrecy and evasion, which has since allowed them to hide their actions from the public and from Congress. Ultimately, the purpose of using secret emails, personal emails, applying excessive redactions to documents released via FOIA, and erecting other barriers to transparency is to avoid scrutiny and accountability.”

“Specifically, the agency established an alias identity to hide the actions of the former administrator; has purposefully been unresponsive to FOIA requests, oftentimes redacting information the public has a right to know; and mismanaged its electronic records system such that federal records have been jeopardized,” the GOP report held. “Moreover, EPA’s leadership abandoned the historic model of a specialized public servant who seeks to fairly administer the law and has instead embraced a number of controversial tactics to advance a secretive agenda. These tactics include circumventing transparency obligations to avoid public scrutiny and manipulation of the FOIA process to benefit their allies.”

The EPA, the report said, “has steadfastly ignored its constitutional obligation to subject itself to Congressional oversight, apparently in an effort to prevent the public from knowing what is going on behind closed doors.”

In their latest broadside, the Republican lawmakers informed Elkins that a number of factors led to the OIG’s “faulty conclusion.” The OIG relied solely on interviews of EPA officials willing to cooperate, failing to examine actual staff emails. The inspector general’s office, which claimed it had no authority to review private email accounts for agency business beyond asking the employee if they had ever improperly used a private email account, did not follow up or fact-check.

Investigators didn’t interview Jackson or former General Counsel Scott Fulton, a senior level official who played a central role in the controversy.

“Moreover, the report’s conclusion that EPA officials did not use personal email accounts to conduct agency business is false,” the letter to Elkins said. “The committee has presented a wealth of evidence demonstrating EPA officials using personal email accounts to conduct agency business.”

The letter further charged that Jared Blumenfeld, EPA administrator in Region 9, the Pacific Northwest, “outright lied to your investigators.”

“As you are aware, he has since admitted to the committee that he did in fact use his private email account to conduct agency business,” the letter said. “Moreover, he has turned close to 1,500 pages of emails sent or received on his private account pursuant to a FOIA, obtained from his private account. It does not appear that there were any consequences for his attempt to mislead and obstruct your investigation.”

Vitter and other Republican members of the committee have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the general results of inspector general investigations of the EPA.

Washington freelancer Bill Straub is former White House correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service.

Comments are closed.

Top Rated Comments   
OIG claimed:

" it had no authority to review private email accounts for agency business"

"This practice of maintaining one staff-managed public email address and another secondary address for use by a high-profile individual is commonly employed in both the public and private sector"

So what the hell good is the FOIA then?

Just another example that these people have no intention of playing by any rules whatsoever. Capitalizing on some good and reasonable work in past years, they have become a self-serving monster. They have never heard of the concept of cost-benefit analysis. They believe that the government may exert control over all resources and activities - limited only by their imaginations - simply because we share one body of air and an interconnected water system.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (13)
All Comments   (13)
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Another cover-up. I can hardly believe it.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
And the violators probably think they're cute and creative by circumventing a law that was created to protect their dumb asses and their fellow citizens. Totally without morals, our fellow citizens serving the people.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
The point is - are these emails discoverable? Does the EPA, or any government agency for that matter, keep a list of the email accounts attributable to a single custodian? When a records for communications of a given custodian are issued, are all communications associated with that individual included? The answer clearly seems to be - "No". So the charge of obstructing justice can, and should, be made.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Firing Squad !
Ready on the firing line!
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
If a republican is elected president in 2016, can his attorney General open criminal cases against these people - even though Holder chooses not to at this time? Go after individual bureaucrats, make public all the email communications etc...
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yes
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
OIG claimed:

" it had no authority to review private email accounts for agency business"

"This practice of maintaining one staff-managed public email address and another secondary address for use by a high-profile individual is commonly employed in both the public and private sector"

So what the hell good is the FOIA then?

Just another example that these people have no intention of playing by any rules whatsoever. Capitalizing on some good and reasonable work in past years, they have become a self-serving monster. They have never heard of the concept of cost-benefit analysis. They believe that the government may exert control over all resources and activities - limited only by their imaginations - simply because we share one body of air and an interconnected water system.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
""This practice of maintaining one staff-managed public email address and another secondary address for use by a high-profile individual is commonly employed in both the public and private sector"

That's simply a lie.

Common email addresses are sometimes used for functions that are shared, or which need to be published, such as "spam@fcc.gov";;, or "webmaster@somewebsite.com";;, but it's not "common practice" for individuals to not have their own account for day to day business.

33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
No one in government bothers with cost-benefit analysis because it has no meaning to them. If they do attempt it, their understanding of "cost" skews it.

For example, when deciding whether a project that requires certain software, they compare the cost of buying it against $0 for having contractors who are already on contract write the software. So, even though there really is a cost in having 3 developers create the software, they don't count that as a cost, even though there are plenty of other things those developers could be doing for the government.

Similarly, since all of their budgets are use-it-or-lose-it, near the end of the fiscal year, the benefit part of the equation gets ignored if they have the money already allocated. The use-it-or-lose-it system ensures that Federal employees are actually PUNISHED for failing to spend their entire allocated budget. If you don't spend all of your budget in a year, the next year, they allocate less to your department. So, there is a strong disincentive to saving money.

It's a screwed up place and we would be far better off with far less of it.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Just like her predecessor Lisa Jackson, the current EPA head views her job as doing Obama's bidding. Similarly, in a rare moment of candor, HHS Kathleen Sebelius noted she didn't work for the American people.

Here's how our government "works" these days:

Serial screw ups & mess ups, power grabs by an entire gamut of not constitutionally mandated agencies (not to mention the chief executive himself) followed by some bitching and moaning followed by years' long, ideologically tainted and highly bent "investigations" into said screw ups & power grabs.

Most of which, as a function of fatigue and declining attention span, will go nowhere.

An atty general can be cited for contempt of Congress and the director of national intelligence can be caught red handed lying to Congress, and nothing happens.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
The EPA had an award winning agent pose as a CIA agent, and in HIS deposition, he admitted that the EPA was infusing and infecting the free market democracy with intentionally destructive anti-capitalism programs.

The secret emails...much like the JournOlistas...have an agenda to destroy the transparency and objectivity of their respective mandates.

People should hang for treason.

And those who cover it up are accessories after the fact. A conspiracy impacting citizens in Texas or Alabama should have the right to sue individuals who engaged in conspiracies to intentionally harm them and steal their money, strip their rights and persecute them. The STATES should begin to protect their citizens because clearly...the federal government can't be trusted.

And the Republican Party with its Ministry of Stern Notes plans to continue the tough love of tickling tyranny with a feather.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
"The STATES should begin to protect their citizens..."

Yeah, sure, as if THEY have any intent to do so...

Most real abuses (police brutality, 4th amendment violations, school/safety nazis, eminent domain, office petty tyranants) are strictly local...

Just look how "The State" of California is carving out a nice, comfortable slot for Sandra Fluke to become part of the Local Regime...like she'll be "protecingt" anyone from further govenrmental abuse

Untill significant numbers of them smell the cordite and feel the rope burns, nothing will ever change

I
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
When the agencies that are supposed to oversee our bureaucrats are appointed by the same people who direct the bureaucrats, who can really be surprised that the overseers fail miserably to stop abuses of the spirit of the rules?

It sounds to me as if the EPA knew the fix was in from the start and that they faced no risks from the Inspector General's office because that department had been told in advance not to look very closely at the EPA's activities and just go through the motions. Seriously, who investigates email abuse without actually reading emails? And how do you take the Inspector General's investigators seriously if they simply take the word of anyone who they question without verifying independently that they told the truth?

We really have allowed the foxes to guard the henhouse....

33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
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