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The audit was released by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General earlier this week, after being requested by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee.
The charge has been floating around conservative media and Republican circles for a while now. The gist is that Lisa Jackson, the head of the EPA from 2009 to 2013, used a secondary agency email called “firstname.lastname@example.org,” and at one point used that email to ask a personal friend — who also happened to be a green energy lobbyist — to contact her personal account. Jackson explained at a hearing that she was asking a friend to move purely personal correspondence over to a more appropriate venue, but critics raised the specter of efforts to hide agency-related business.
The problem is no actual evidence ever emerged that anyone made deliberate efforts to skirt Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) record-keeping. The new Inspector General report confirms that lack: “We 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 said. Further, “based only on discussions with these senior officials, the OIG found no evidence that these individuals had used private email to circumvent federal record-keeping responsibilities.”
The use of secondary emails that don’t contain an employee’s name can make transparency efforts more difficult, since people doing FOIA searches may not know of the accounts’ existence. But the report also describes the use of secondary emails like the ‘email@example.com’ account as “appropriate and commonplace within the federal government.” Jackson, for instance, received around one million emails a year, so a second account that isn’t obvious to the public and is known only to selected individuals helps a great deal in filtering and prioritizing communication.
Previous heads of the EPA and other agencies under administrations of both parties have used multiple email addresses, including ones that didn’t feature their names. For example, George W. Bush’s first EPA head, Christine Todd Whitman, used “ToWhit,” former deputy administrator and acting administrator Marcus Peacock used “Tofu,” and Marianne Horinko, acting administrator for five months in 2003, used “ToDuke.”
The report did find that the EPA’s record-keeping training for employees on has not been up to snuff, and that it’s automated electronic record-keeping tools were inadequate. But the EPA also recognized electronic content management as “an agency-level weakness” back in 2009, and began taking steps to correct the problem. Official training content “explicitly discouraged employees from using private email accounts to conduct agency business” beginning that year, and earlier in 2013 efforts began to train employees in what to do when agency business does filter into personal accounts. And in 2010, the EPA “embarked on an ambitious effort to improve the technology available to employees for managing, preserving, and producing agency information.” This included a workgroup that’s made “significant” progress in launching new tools to improve record searches and help EPA employees archive their correspondence.