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Controversy over e-mails escalates

GOP officials say they're still searching for missing messages. Democrats want to know Rove's role.

April 13, 2007|Tom Hamburger and Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The growing controversy over White House record-keeping and disclosure swirled around presidential advisor Karl Rove on Thursday, as congressional Democrats said they were told that some e-mails that Rove sent from a Republican National Committee account were missing.

After a meeting between RNC lawyers and congressional investigators, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said he learned that Rove might have deliberately deleted them himself.

A Washington lawyer retained by the Republican National Committee, Robert K. Kelner, wrote to Waxman's committee later Thursday saying that the statement "mischaracterizes the briefing" because the RNC's search for the missing e-mails was not complete.

As demands for documents escalated, other Democrats suggested Thursday that the White House had withheld potentially embarrassing information, a charge the administration vigorously denies.

"I am beginning to wonder whether the White House has any interest in the American people learning the truth about these matters," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, after announcing that the panel had authorized the use of subpoenas to obtain information about the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys.

He said on the Senate floor Thursday that a teenager could find the lost White House e-mails. "They say they have not been preserved. I don't believe that," Leahy told the Senate. "You can't erase e-mails -- not today. They've gone through too many servers."

At the White House, spokeswoman Dana Perino rejected those comments, telling reporters there was no indication that any crimes were committed in the lost e-mails, and saying that the White House counsel's office was trying to retrieve them.

"We don't have an idea on the universe of the number of e-mails that were lost," she said. "Truly, we just don't know enough yet."

But she also said, "I will admit it. We screwed up and we're trying to fix it." She denied contentions from Leahy that the administration did not want to turn the material over. "He's wrong," she said.

The large e-mail inquiry originated from once-separate congressional probes into allegations of politicization of executive-branch functions by the Bush White House.

The House and Senate judiciary committees uncovered the use of the RNC e-mail addresses by White House staffers as it investigated the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

Waxman's staff found the RNC addresses while reading e-mails during the investigation of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Waxman has also investigated efforts by Rove's office to communicate Republican electoral priorities to political appointees at federal agencies.

Some of the e-mails were sent by the White House over special electronic communications links established by the RNC to handle political matters. Using government computers for such e-mails could violate federal laws governing presidential records and could threaten White House claims of executive privilege to shield internal documents from congressional scrutiny.

Rove, a political strategist who has become among the most influential presidential advisors in recent history, has encouraged Cabinet-agency political appointees to pay close attention to electoral politics when making policy and other decisions, and his role is at the heart of the investigations being pushed by congressional Democrats.

Immediately after Kelner briefed investigators Thursday, Waxman sent a letter to every Cabinet secretary asking them to preserve all e-mails received from any White House official who used accounts maintained by the RNC or any "other nongovernment account."

Leahy and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the judiciary panel, wrote a letter to White House Counsel Fred F. Fielding asking that the White House establish an "objective process for investigating this matter, including the use of a mutually trusted computer-forensic expert."

Also Thursday, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood), chairwoman of the panel's administrative law subcommittee, wrote to RNC Chairman Robert M. "Mike" Duncan, demanding "prompt delivery" by next week of all e-mails stored by the RNC related to the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys.

For example, they want to see e-mails from an account used by J. Scott Jennings, special assistant to the president and deputy director of political affairs in the White House, from the RNC-maintained domain name gwb43.com.

That address showed up in e-mail communications about how to replace U.S. Atty. H.E. "Bud" Cummins III of Arkansas to make room for Timothy Griffin, a Rove protege, in such a way as to "alleviate pressure/implication that Tim forced Bud out."

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