A former EPA head went to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to again deflate a GOP claim that she used secret email accounts to hide agency business.
The specific accusation is that Lisa Jackson, who ran the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Obama Administration from 2009 to 2013, used a secondary email account at the EPA — and possibly a personal account — to hide agency dealings from public scrutiny in violation of federal records law. The charge was first made by Christopher Horner, a lawyer with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. It was then picked up by other conservative legal organizations as they pursued lawsuits against the EPA, and repeated by various members of the right-wing media.
Those accusations and suspicions are now featured in the breathlessly titled report, “A Call for Sunshine: EPA’s FOIA and Federal Records Failures Uncovered,” from the Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Yesterday’s House Committee On Oversight and Government Reform hearing, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), aimed to feature the report and raise a number of other transparency concerns. It included both Jackson and a number of officials from other agencies as witnesses.
According to her testimony, Jackson used a primary and secondary agency email address while heading up the EPA. The secondary account was under the pseudonym “firstname.lastname@example.org,” though it was still subject to the same record-keeping rules as any other email account she might have used. Critics argue the pseudonyms hamstring transparency efforts, such as requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). And the most vociferous critics suggest the muddying was intentional. Republicans and conservatives also latched on to one incident in which Jackson asked Allison Taylor — a personal friend, who was also a lobbyist for the sustainable energy and technology firm Siemens — to contact Jackson at her personal account after a long email exchange on the “windsor.richard” account.
But as Jackson pointed out in her testimony the use of two email accounts, one of which would not be as amenable to public searches, was a standard practice encouraged by the career staff when she arrived. (“Windsor.Richard” was a joke based off the town Jackson’s family was living in, combined with the name of their pet dog.) And both accounts were fully subject to records law and FOIA requests.
Both the Republicans’ report and Horner expressed dismay over the arbitrary and limited nature of how the secondary account was given out. But the EPA Administrator receives over one million emails a year — or about one every thirty seconds. So a second account that’s difficult to find publicly and is only given out on a selective basis is actually an incredibly useful tool for managing and prioritizing the fire hose of correspondence. Several previous heads of the EPA and other agencies, under both Democratic and Republican Administrations, used multiple email addresses, including ones that did not feature their names. Even the National Archives’ official guidelines for handling email recognize the practice as filling a legitimate need.
As for the email to Taylor, Jackson said that if the email chain is read in its entirety, it’s clear that Taylor is a personal friend as well as a lobbyist, that she had contacted Jackson via the “windsor.richard” account because it happened to be the one she was given, and Jackson suggested her home email so that they could carry on their personal, non-agency-related correspondence in a more appropriate venue. Jackson also submitted examples of instances where she forwarded exchanges from her personal account to her EPA accounts when they turned out to be agency-related.
Of course, it’s possible that Jackson used her personal account to duck the record-keeping process. But neither Issa nor anyone else has uncovered any evidence of that.
It’s true, as the GOP’s report notes, that however useful the secondary emails without official names may be, they have the unavoidable side-effect of making transparency more difficult. Jackson stated that she regularly had to remind people involved in FOIA requests to include the “windsor.richard” account in their searches.
So between that, and requiring officials to forward any emails from personal accounts they feel should be included in record-keeping, transparency practices do rely heavily on an honor system. Which is understandably disconcerting. Other witnesses at the hearing, discussing other agencies and the archiving process as a whole, acknowledged that new practices and better training are needed to improve record-keeping throughout the government.
There’s just no evidence that what’s going on here is anything more than the inevitable difficulties that occur when new technological options for communication overwhelm the ability of agency practices and training to keep up.
This post has been edited for clarity.