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Obama officials defend personal emails and aliases

Obama administration officials testify that they weren't trying to hide email communication, but followed standard practices or lacked training in keeping records.

September 10, 2013|By Alexei Koseff
  • Former EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson told the House Oversight Committee that her private EPA email account was necessary “for practical purposes, for time management purposes, for the ability to do the job with email.”
Former EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson told the House Oversight Committee… (Isaac Brekken / Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers at a House Oversight Committee hearing Tuesday accused Obama administration officials of attempting to bypass transparency and record-keeping laws by using personal email accounts and email aliases to conduct official government business.

Several officials, including former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, testified that they were following standard agency practices or had made errors based on a lack of training in records retention.

"It has become habitual for high-ranking … individuals to simply, either out of laziness or in order to circumvent later discovery," ignore government email policy, committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Vista) said in his opening statement.

"This trend very clearly began, according to our investigation, in the later part of the Bush administration. But it has not been corrected. In fact, it has proliferated" despite President Obama's commitment to transparency, he added.

On Monday, the National Archives said that multiple official email accounts and the use of personal accounts were permissible in some situations, but that all correspondence regarding official business must be properly captured for record-keeping.

Jackson, who is now serving as Apple's top environmental officer, drew particular criticism for using a secondary email alias, "Richard Windsor," to communicate with staff and other government officials during her time at the EPA. She was embroiled in controversy last year when the alias was revealed, leading to accusations that Jackson was trying to avoid Freedom of Information Act requests.

In her testimony Tuesday, Jackson said her public email account received more than 1 million messages each year, so a more private EPA account was necessary "for practical purposes, for time management purposes, for the ability to do the job with email."

She said the policy of having a secondary email account was sanctioned by the national archivist and used by her predecessors in the George W. Bush administration. She said she had been advised against choosing something obvious and went with a "tongue-in-cheek" reference to her family dog and home in East Windsor Township, N.J.

Issa said the EPA had not initially been forthcoming with correspondence under the name Richard Windsor. He questioned whether Jackson's alias had been properly linked to her true name for the purpose of record-keeping.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) defended Jackson, calling her "a convenient target to demonize" who was only "guilty of the crime of trying to protect the environment of the United States."

Following Tuesday's hearing, Jackson told reporters that her practices had been mischaracterized.

"We heard from the archivist over and over again that the setting-up of a second official account, the naming of it — all of that ensures that records are preserved," she said. "That was my intention. It was not my intention to do business in my personal email."

Jonathan Silver, former executive director of the loans program at the Department of Energy, was sharply criticized by the panel Tuesday for a message he had sent to his staff telling them, "Don't ever send an email on [Department of Energy] email with a personal email [address]. That makes them supoenable."

Issa accused Silver of conducting business from his personal account to hide knowledge about the impending failure of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, which received a $535-million loan guarantee from the Obama administration before filing for bankruptcy in 2011.

Silver said the message was an "an admonishment and a reminder" to his staff that they should not mix official and personal email.

He added that while he had used his personal account for government business, "it was not [his] intention to evade anything there." He had not forwarded those messages to his official account for record-keeping, he said, because he "did not have a clear understanding of the department's requirements concerning personal email retention."

National archivist David S. Ferriero testified Tuesday that using personal email accounts for government business was discouraged but understandable in some situations. When it does occur, he said, "the records must be moved to the official record-keeping system of the agency as soon as practicable."

In a telephone interview, Ferriero added that rapidly changing technology and "the variety of means that we have to communicate," such as new social networking platforms, have complicated the question of what constitutes an official record.

"It's unclear if stuff has actually been lost," he said.

As a result, the National Archives is now clarifying its policies for electronic records and working with federal agencies to designate senior officials who will ensure compliance with records management.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the oversight committee's ranking Democrat, also introduced legislation to the House this year that would require federal agencies to establish more thorough electronic record-keeping systems.

alexei.koseff@latimes.com

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