Vitter Accuses Inspector General of Providing Cover for EPA in Investigation

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.