January 6, 2013
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. . . .
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.
Laws are for the little people.