Although President Obama occasionally clings to the claim that his administration is the “most transparent” in history, with more and more revelations, this gets farther and farther from the truth. Clearly, we have an epidemic on our hands.
Over the past couple years, I have uncovered case after case of federal government officials, particularly those at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), knowingly and willingly moving select correspondence “off-line”, away from required, official email accounts. We have even found senior appointees at EPA, Department of Energy, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy using email accounts controlled by environmental pressure groups.
Regardless of intent, although I would argue these practices on their face indicate a desire to evade disclosure, the use of non-official email accounts for work purposes circumvents federal-recordkeeping responsibilities. Since employees have chosen to not search them in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests or congressional oversight requests, this allows government officials to avoid revealing their actions to taxpayers who finance their salaries.
These corrupt practices are not isolated to the federal government. In requests the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), assisted Colorado’s Independence Institute with, we show the practice extends to activists employed in state government. In Colorado, this means Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Chief-of-Staff, the governor’s Chief Strategy Officer and Director of the Office of Policy and Research to Colorado, Alan Salazar, and the Director of Environmental Programs for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (DPHE), Martha Rudolph.
On October 15, 2013, I filed a FOIA request on behalf of CEI for all non-official account emails of former EPA Region 8 (Rocky Mountain West) administrator James Martin, a former Environmental Defense (ED) lawyer who we had already showed was using a private account to correspond on work-related issues with former ED colleagues and state officials. After these revelations, like another high-level EPA official — former administrator Lisa Jackson, also known as “Richard Windsor” in a false-identity account I also discovered — Martin resigned from his post in February 2013. Under congressional scrutiny after these revelations, he turned over more emails, which I obtained from the EPA.
These emails, as the Independence Institute reports this week in the first of a series of investigative news articles, showed senior appointees of Gov. John Hickenlooper were using private accounts for official email with certain correspondents. When the Independence Institute submitted two Colorado Open Records Act requests, I assisted them in seeking unofficial account correspondence from two appointees we learned were using these accounts, without specification or otherwise showing our hand. The governor’s office and DPHE denied the existence of the accounts’ use that we already had proof of.
The Independence Institute notes these failures to admit the accounts and/or their official use “demonstrate a lack of public transparency and the use of unofficial, private email addresses by senior members of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration. They reveal the use of multiple private email accounts to conduct official business between agencies of the state of Colorado and the federal government.”
These government officials working for the state of Colorado have been caught being untruthful by omission and commission, depending on the office involved, in their response to proper requests for transparency. They also seem to have destroyed information that should have been retained for public-record keeping. I have found similar destruction of unofficial account emails by activists working at EPA and NASA, so far.
While such correspondence as we found were created in Colorado — and the Independence Institute has found were destroyed — are not beyond the reach of open records statutes as a matter of law, they usually end up being so in fact. This is because, as our own federal requests have proved over and again, employees do not search the accounts [for example, CEI has found 17 senior EPA officials, including former administrator Jackson and 3 regional administrators — again — doing this].
While unlawful, that is not overly surprising, given they are the ones who chose to move some of their work presumably out of the view of prying taxpayers to begin with.
I wish the Independence Institute the best of luck in their efforts to recreate the official records that they have been informed have been tainted by improper evasion and destruction.