Sunshine law gets cloudy when federal officials take email home

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Documents show that Lisa P. Jackson, as EPA chief, told a lobbyist to shift their conversations to her “home email” account rather than using official government accounts, in a move that appears to contravene the intent of federal sunshine laws.

Meanwhile, top House investigators Tuesday accused Lois Lerner, the woman at the center of the investigation into the IRS targeting of conservative groups, of using her personal email account while doing agency business.

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In Ms. Lerner’s case, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform said she sent draft documents from her official government account to a personal email address. In Ms. Jackson’s case, the information, released as part of a Freedom of Information Act request, shows she told a vice president at Siemens AG, a multinational electronics corporation, to communicate with her on a private email account rather than at her EPA addresses.

“P.S. Can you use my home email rather than this one when you need to contact me directly? Tx, Lisa,” Ms. Jackson wrote in a December 2009 email to Siemens USA’s vice president for sustainability, Alison Taylor, after the woman asked Ms. Jackson to schedule a meeting with a company executive.

Ms. Jackson resigned as head of the Environmental Protection Agency late last year, just as questions about her use of emails were beginning to rise — particularly over whether she was using a secondary government address attached to the name “Richard Windsor” to avoid scrutiny.

Lois Lerner, head of the Internal Revenue Service unit that decides whether to grant tax-exempt status, was put on administrative leave after she declared her innocence but refused to answer congressional questions about the targeting. (Associated Press)

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Lois Lerner, head of the Internal Revenue Service unit that decides whether ... more >

The 2009 email was part of hundreds of pages of documents the EPA turned over after open-records requests from Christopher C. Horner, a researcher and author of “The Liberal War on Transparency,” a book that argues the Obama administration is avoiding sunshine laws that the president promised to uphold.

“I have demonstrated widespread use by Obama officials of nonofficial email accounts to conduct official business, by people trained to know that this is improper,” Mr. Horner said Tuesday.

He thinks some administration officials are turning to private or secret accounts to try to avoid public scrutiny, which is against the law but difficult to police.

“FOIA works on an honor system, and those systems only work with people of honor. So you see the problem,” he said.

The two most recent examples of potential private email use for government business came to light only because of the paper trail that showed up in other document requests.

The EPA didn’t return messages seeking comment Tuesday, and Ms. Jackson didn’t respond to an email sent to her private address asking about her move to push her conversation with the Siemens employee to a private account.

Open-records rules require federal employees who do business on their private accounts to forward those messages to their government emails so that they can be archived as official records, but there is no evidence in the documents released so far that Ms. Jackson forwarded any such correspondence. That means it’s impossible to know whether she did end up conducting official business through her private account.

But at least one other former EPA employer was caught doing that. James Martin, who resigned from the agency in February, used his private email account to give advice to the Environmental Defense Fund and to correspond with Ms. Jackson, according to documents released earlier this year by Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Mr. Vitter said the EPA earlier acknowledged that Mr. Martin used his private email for business but said it was just one time — not the multiple instances the documents showed.

Meanwhile, the agency is fending off requests from Mr. Horner to produce instant messages — another controversial area of open-records laws.

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