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EPA administrators invent excuses to avoid transparency

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EPA administrators invent excuses to avoid transparency

The Environmental Protection Agency is the latest Obama bureaucracy exposed for embarrassing efforts to avert transparency. Its administrator, Lisa Jackson, has been using the email alias "Richard Windsor" to conduct agency business, which might allow some policy conversations to avoid scrutiny and circumvent public records laws.

So far, the EPA has offered a two-part defense of such accounts, first revealed in my new book, "The Liberal War on Transparency." First, everybody does it: "For more than a decade, EPA administrators have been assigned two official, government-issued email accounts: a public account and an internal account." Second, the masses made us do it: the overwhelming volume of mail an administrator would receive from the public meant she needed an account she would actually read and write from.

Both excuses, though slight on detail, prove too much.

Consider what lies behind the anodyne phrase "for more than a decade." While researching my book, I discovered a 2008 EPA memo to the national archivist reporting a records management problem. The agency had discovered "secondary" nonpublic email accounts for EPA administrators instigated earlier, under and with the active participation of Clinton-era EPA administrator Carol Browner.

That is remarkable because in 2000, a federal court ordered Browner to preserve her records -- specifically her email -- in a lawsuit filed by Mark Levin's Landmark Legal Foundation. Although she later pled ignorance of the order, the next morning Browner instructed EPA information technology staff to erase her hard drive and backup tapes, as a computer contractor later testified.

Her defense for having records destroyed was that she didn't use her computer for email.

You can imagine my surprise, then, to read of her involvement in arranging what is fairly described as a secret email account. The April 11, 2008, memo that I obtained acknowledges that Browner had such an account, and that such accounts were initiated for the first time under her because it would be impractical to correspond with an email account whose address was known to the public.

This, and that she had assisted in creating the account also raised further questions about her explanation for having her computer's history erased.

The reason EPA was required to report to the archivist was that its technicians found that these accounts were set on "auto-delete," destroying all records 90 days after they were last modified. As such, EPA said, it was difficult but not impossible to reconstruct the accounts' activity. The agency did reconstruct some administrators' emails by finding copies sent to or received from the accounts by others in the agency, but they made no effort to reconstruct Ms. Browner's account.

Their reason was that "Former Administrator Browner reportedly did not use her secondary email account, therefore there was no loss of records."

Note that conclusion is simply an assertion, one EPA elected not to check.

It would seem worthwhile to check, given the massive, costly operation that Browner's cyber-bonfire created. On its face, this destruction of records seemingly violates the U.S. criminal code (Title 18 Section 2071). The same court ordered thousands of hard drives examined in search of Browner's. Once it was found, the FBI conducted a forensic examination leading only to the conclusion that her hard drive had indeed been "reformatted."

There are further reasons why this matters for Obama's administrator Jackson. Has EPA in fact been searching for and producing from the "Richard Windsor" account to satisfy Freedom of Information requests for Jackson's emails? They say yes, but I have found reasons to demand verification (which Congress has also requested).

One reason is a demonstrated bureaucratic practice of inventing excuses to not search or produce certain files when they don't want them released. Another is that Obama officials have moved government over to private email accounts, private computers and even privately owned and managed servers. All of these acts indicate a desire to hide what the supposedly most transparent administration in history is up to.

Finally, for some reason EPA continues to stonewall our request for Jackson's "Windsor" emails about the war on coal and backdoor efforts to make electricity rates, in President Obama's words, "necessarily skyrocket."

EPA owes a lot of answers. So far, all it has offered are excuses.