Emails a focus of EPA hearing

Nominee promises to crack down on lawbreakers

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President Obama’s pick to be the next chief of the Environmental Protection Agency told Congress on Thursday that she never has used private emails or instant-messaging to try to avoid open-records laws, and promised to crack down on those within the agency who do.

Republican senators peppered Gina McCarthy, whom Mr. Obama nominated to be the new administrator, with questions about the agency’s transparency record and demanded she commit to making the agency more responsive to investigative requests than it was under her predecessor, Lisa P. Jackson.

“I want you to know that I care about this as much as you do,” Ms. McCarthy, who is an assistant administrator at the agency, told the Environment and Public Works Committee.

She said has never conducted business through her personal email and said she has never used instant messaging to avoid open-records laws.

“One good thing about being 58 is I don’t even know how to use them,” she said, drawing chuckles and even agreement from some of the senators who likewise shy away from instant messaging.

The focus on transparency comes after independent researchers and members of Congress uncovered evidence that some top EPA officials used private emails to conduct government business, in violation of open-records laws, and that the agency appeared not to be searching instant messages in response to open-records requests.

The researchers also discovered that Ms. Jackson had maintained an alternate email address under the alias Richard Windsor.

Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, said that practice stretches back to at least the Bush administration, whose EPA administrators also used alternate emails. She read out the various alternate addresses the Bush-era officials used.

The EPA administrator’s main email is published on its website, so the administrators use the alias to conduct business.

“I don’t think it’s anything nefarious,” Ms. Boxer said.

Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, the top Republican on the committee, agreed, saying he wasn’t as concerned about the official email alias as he was the reports that some in the agency were using their private personal accounts to conduct agency business, which would violate open-records laws.

One regional administrator resigned after initially denying he used his personal account for public business, only to have to recant that.

Earlier this week, EPA’s acting administrator sent out an email warning all employees to do a better job in maintaining records, and telling them there will be mandatory retraining.

EPA’s inspector general is also investigating the charges of problems.

Open-records laws require all business to be done on official government computers so that the information is available when requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

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