Smith: EPA IG Highlights Agency Fraught With Problems

Sep 30, 2013

Washington, D.C. – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Inspector General (IG) today released a report regarding EPA staff’s use of private email accounts for government business, as well as alias or secondary email accounts.  Federal law requires the collection and retention of official government records so they can be made available upon request by Congress or the American public through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Members of the Science Committee requested the IG investigation after it was confirmed that former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson had used the alias email account “Richard Windsor” to conduct official government business.  The report released today identifies several areas of concern regarding the EPA’s management of records and procedures.

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas): “The IG’s report points to an agency with many problems. I understand the rationale for a secondary email address, but creating a completely different alias, such as former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s ‘Richard Windsor’ account, raises serious questions. It gives the impression that senior Obama administration officials used these alias email accounts to circumvent important public disclosure requirements under federal law. The IG’s report found that the EPA has significant work to do if it wants to ensure transparency and regain the public’s trust. I agree with these findings and hope that senior EPA officials take them to heart.”

The IG’s report indicates it was a “common practice” for previous administrators to be issued two EPA email accounts – one available to the public and one for internal communications with EPA personnel.  However, the report questions this practice, stating that “secondary EPA email accounts present risks to records management efforts if they are not searched to preserve federal records.”

The report also highlights the following findings: 

  • The EPA lacks records management policies and procedures regarding private email account usage;
  • The EPA lacks records management training for private and alias email usage;
  • The EPA lacks practices for collecting and preserving records for employees separating from regional offices; and
  • The EPA lacks tool to place email in its electronic content management system for its new email system.

Despite these shortcomings, the report states that IG staff found no evidence of attempts by EPA senior employees to circumvent records management responsibilities.  However, this judgment was made “based only on discussions with these senior officials.” 

The report concluded that “If these critical issues are not corrected, the agency faces the risk that records needed to document the EPA’s decisions would not be available.  This could potentially undermine the public’s confidence in the transparency of the EPA’s operations and ultimately erode the public’s trust in the agency’s stewardship of the nation’s environmental programs.”

Earlier this month, Chairman Smith and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Paul Broun (R-Ga.) sent a letter to the  EPA expressing their concerns following news reports of an Associated Press (AP) investigation of “hundreds of pages of government emails” acquired through a FOIA request.  The reports identified troubling trends in the use of alternate emails by EPA and other federal agencies, including that the AP could not “independently find instances when material from any of the secret accounts it identified was turned over” under “public records requests and congressional inquiries.”

The letter also referenced an August 14, 2013 federal court ruling in a case against EPA where the judge stated that the “possibility that unsearched personal email accounts may have been used for official business raises the possibility that leaders in the EPA may have purposefully attempted to skirt disclosure under the FOIA.”

Along with Chairman Smith, the following members requested the IG report: Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca.), Ralph Hall (R-Texas), Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), Paul Broun (R-Ga.) and former Committee Member Andy Harris (R-Md.).

A copy of the IG report can be found here.