WASHINGTON – Seven months after resigning as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Lisa Jackson returned to the hot seat Tuesday to refute allegations she had abused her official email accounts and used her own private account to circumvent open records requirements.
Jackson, who used an email under the alias “Richard Windsor” at the EPA, said the practice of using a secondary official account was common among former administrators from both parties.
“I had a secondary official government account like my predecessors before me, and that was done for time management and to be able to do my job,” Jackson said in prepared remarks.
Jackson, who became Apple’s top environmental official in May, explained she chose the name because her family lived in the town of Windsor and her family dog was named Ricky. Jackson said she used the account to communicate with her staff and senior members of the White House administration and to survive the overload of communications.
“The EPA has estimated that the administrator receives well over a million e-mails every year. That’s a new email message almost every 30 seconds, around the clock, 365 days a year,” Jackson said.
The House Oversight and Government Reform hearing focused on the practice in government of using private email and alias accounts for official business.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the committee’s chairman, said the problem began at the end of the Bush administration, but in spite of President Obama’s promises to improve transparency the problem has gotten worse in the past five years.
“It is the commitment of this president, orally and in writing, to be the most transparent in history,” Issa said. “Transparency requires two things. One, that you let the sunshine in, and secondly, that the information be available in the sunlight.”
Issa also noted that contrary to their testimony, officials have not taken care to forward their private emails pertaining to government business to their official accounts.
“Very clearly emails have been lost,” he said.
Allegations that Jackson used her personal email account to circumvent federal records laws are largely based on one email in which Jackson told a Siemens employee to contact her using a personal account instead of the Winsdor account.
In December 2009, Jackson told Alison Taylor, a vice president at Siemens, to use her home email account if Taylor needed to contact Jackson directly.
“I believe she is a registered lobbyist,” Issa said about Taylor.
“The way I knew her was in a personal manner,” Jackson replied. “I was telling a personal friend, ‘Hey, if you want to… contact me at home,’” Jackson said. She said that if anything came to her home account that was business-related, her practice was to forward it to her official account.
“I apologize, but that was what the Abramoff scandal was about,” Issa said. “People said they were friends, when in fact he was a lobbyist.”
When the email exchange happened, Taylor was a lobbyist for Siemens and had asked Jackson if she could meet with Siemens’ chief sustainability officer, Taylor’s boss.
Jackson agreed and shortly after sent an email, saying: “P.S. Can you use my home email rather than this one when you need to contact me directly? Tx, Lisa.”
The EPA has said Jackson’s second account was hosted on the agency’s servers and fully accessible under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Nevertheless, the agency has also informed the committee that most of the information it requested no longer exists.
“In the case of your activities using personal accounts, we will not get full discovery. The public will not get it. The fact is EPA has not met its responsibility for transparency,” Issa said.
Republican lawmakers on Monday issued a report accusing the EPA of violating transparency regulations in pursuit of its policy goals.
The 30-page report, prepared by Republican members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, primarily focuses on EPA activities under Jackson.
The report accuses the EPA of being unresponsive to FOIA requests, often redacting information and mismanaging its electronic records system.
“From day one of the Obama administration, the EPA has pursued a path of obfuscation, operating in the shadows, and out of legally required sunlight,” the report said. “Specifically, the agency established an alias identity to hide the actions of [Jackson].”
David Ferriero, the U.S. archivist, said that use of an alias email is allowed as long as the messages are preserved and produced in response to a request for records.
“The National Archives discourages the use of private e-mail accounts to conduct federal business, but understands that there are situations where such use does occur,” Ferriero said. In a notice yesterday, the archives advised agencies that private email accounts should be avoided for public business and any messages to alias government email addresses be captured as part of federal records.
The hearing also featured Garry Gensler, chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, who an internal investigation found regularly used his personal email for government business, and former Energy Department loan office director Jonathan Silver, who took frequent criticism from the GOP during the committee’s investigation of the failed solar panel manufacturer Solyndra in 2011. The company received a $535 million loan guarantee from the Obama administration in 2010.
Silver acknowledged regularly using his private email for work but denied it was an effort to avoid scrutiny. Before today’s hearing, an individual with the law firm representing Silver asked committee staff not to directly question Silver, according to Issa.
“This one crosses the line,” Issa said, as he asked a staffer to put a copy of the email up on a screen in the room.
He said this was a clear attempt to interfere with Congress and that he would consider referring the matter to the American Bar Association.