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EPA promises to retrain employees to follow open-records laws

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The Environmental Protection Agency said Monday that it will retrain all employees on how to comply with open-records laws and acknowledged that it needs to do better at storing instant-message communications, after the agency came under severe fire from members of Congress who say it appears to have broken those laws.

In a letter to all employees, acting administrator Bob Perciasepe singled out emails and instant messages as areas where the Environmental Protection Agency needs to do a better job. He warned that the agency's auditor is looking into how well they are complying.

Last week, the EPA was sued over its failure to produce instant messages that researchers are seeking under the Freedom of Information Act. The note Monday appears to be an admission that the agency has fallen short on its obligations.

"Maintaining records consistent with our statutory and regulatory obligations is a central tenet for doing the public's business in an open and transparent manner," Mr. Perciasepe said in his email to staffers. "To meet this obligation, we will revise our agency-wide records training ... and will in 2013 reestablish the requirement for all EPA employees to take this training."

The note was sent just days before the Senate holds a confirmation hearing for Gina McCarthy, whom President Obama has nominated as EPA administrator. Lisa P. Jackson resigned as administrator this year amid questions over her use of an email alias that researchers said appeared to be a way to avoid open-records laws. EPA officials acknowledged that she maintained a secondary email but said it was part of open-records search requests.

Congressional inquiries also have uncovered other top officials who used private emails to conduct agency business — a violation of open-records laws.

The Monday memo appears to be a reaction to those widespread reports of problems and a precursor to what are likely to be difficult questions for Ms. McCarthy this week.

An agency spokeswoman didn't return a call seeking comment Monday.

Christopher Horner, a researcher who first revealed Ms. Jackson's use of an alternate email alias and who sued last week to demand that the agency turn over instant messages, said the memo was an acknowledgment of problems within the agency.

"This is big, not just as a general expression of the problem they know they've got with us on their heels, but specifically the note re IMs," he said.

As far as he knows, he said, no instant messages have been turned over in response to open-records requests.

"They've either been destroying them in violation of several laws including the criminal code 18 USC 2071, or else have brazenly been refusing to search and produce them," Mr. Horner said.

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