WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency failed to train employees to search secret government email accounts used by senior officials for messages they were required to turn over under public records requests and congressional inquiries, the inspector general said Monday in a new report. It said senior officials who used the accounts said they did not intend to circumvent federal records laws.
Congress asked the inspector general to perform its inquiry amid concerns over the use of secret government email accounts and personal, nongovernment email accounts for work. Such practices complicate agencies’ legal responsibilities when they are compelled to search for and release emails as part of congressional or internal investigations, civil lawsuits and public records requests. That’s because employees assigned to compile such responses would need to know about the accounts to search them.
“If these critical issues are not corrected, the agency faces the risk that records needed to document the EPA’s decisions would not be available,” the report said. “This could potentially undermine the public’s confidence in the transparency of the EPA’s operations and ultimately erode the public’s trust in the agency’s stewardship of the nation’s environmental programs.”
The Associated Press disclosed in June that some of President Barack Obama’s political appointees were using secret email accounts to conduct official business. The White House acknowledged the practice and said it made sense for Cabinet secretaries and other high-profile officials to have what it called alternative email accounts that wouldn’t fill with unwanted messages. It said all their email accounts, public and otherwise, were subject to congressional oversight and requests by citizens under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.
The new report said EPA employees who respond to such requests hadn’t been trained in records management for three years, and during training in 2007 and 2009 the use of private email accounts and secret government accounts was not covered. The EPA said it plans to include such information in future training sessions.
Earlier this summer, the AP reviewed hundreds of pages of government emails released under the federal open records law and couldn’t independently find instances when material from any of the secret accounts used by political appointees was turned over. Congressional oversight committees told the AP they were unfamiliar with the few nonpublic government addresses that AP had identified, including one for Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of the Health and Human Services Department.
The new inspector general report said it found no evidence that EPA senior officials used, promoted or encouraged the use of private email accounts to circumvent records laws, but noted that its determination was “based only on discussions with these senior officials.”
The chairman of the House Science Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who requested the investigation, said Monday that the report “found that the EPA had significant work to do if it wants to ensure transparency and regain the public’s trust.”
Former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has been a particular target for Republicans and conservative groups since disclosures last year that she used the name “Richard Windsor” in emails to communicate with Obama administration officials. In August, a federal judge said EPA officials may have used private email to avoid public scrutiny.
The inspector general’s report said the practice of using non-public government accounts was common inside the EPA. At a Senate hearing in April, it was revealed that President George W. Bush’s first EPA chief, Christine Todd Whitman, used the address “ToWhit.” Former deputy administrator and acting administrator Marcus Peacock used the secret alias “Tofu.” And Marianne Horinko, acting administrator for five months in 2003, used “ToDuke.”
In a statement through her lawyer, Jackson said the new report “reaffirms the importance of the government-wide practice of an official, non-public email account.” She did not participate in the IG investigation.
Chris Horner, the senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute credited with uncovering the Windsor email account, said it was a mistake for the inspector general to rely exclusively on statements by senior EPA officials to explain their motives for using personal email accounts for official business. He said the inspector general should have relied on “documentary evidence as opposed to the most conflicted parties imaginable.”