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Top political appointees use secret email accounts
Question of the Day
The Labor Department initially asked the AP to pay just over $1.03 million when the AP asked for email addresses of political appointees there. It said it needed pull 2,236 computer backup tapes from its archives and pay 50 people to pore over old records. Those costs included three weeks to identify tapes and ship them to a vendor, and pay each person $2,500 for nearly a month’s work. But under the department’s own FOIA rules — which it cited in its letter to the AP — it is prohibited from charging news organizations any costs except for photocopies after the first 100 pages. The department said it would take 14 weeks to find the emails if the AP had paid the money.
Fillichio later acknowledged that the $1.03 million bill was a mistake and provided the AP with email addresses for the agency’s Senate-confirmed appointees, including three addresses for Harris, the acting secretary. His secret address was harris.sd(at)dol.gov. His other accounts were one for use with labor employees and the public, and another to send mass emails to the entire Labor Department, outside groups and the public. The Labor Department said it did not object to the AP publishing any of Harris’ email addresses.
In addition to the email addresses, the AP also sought records government-wide about decisions to create separate email accounts. But the FOIA director at HHS, Robert Eckert, said the agency couldn’t provide such emails without undergoing “an extensive and elongated department-wide search.” He also said there were “no mechanisms in place to determine if such requests for the creation of secondary email accounts were submitted by the approximately 242 political appointees within HHS.”
Late last year, the EPA’s critics — including Republicans in Congress — accused former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson of using an email account under the name “Richard Windsor” to sidestep disclosure rules. The EPA said emails Jackson sent using her Windsor alias were turned over under open records requests. The agency’s inspector general is investigating the use of such accounts, after being asked to do so by Congress.
An EPA spokeswoman described Jackson’s alternate email address as “an everyday, working email account of the administrator to communicate with staff and other government officials.” It was later determined that Jackson also used the email address to correspond sometimes with environmentalists outside government and at least in some cases did not correct a misperception among outsiders they were corresponding with a government employee named Richard Windsor.
Although the EPA’s inspector general is investigating the agency’s use of secret email accounts, it is not reviewing whether emails from Jackson’s secret account were released as required under the Freedom of Information Act.
The EPA’s secret email accounts were revealed last fall by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank that was tipped off about Jackson’s alias by an insider and later noticed it in documents it obtained the FOIA. The EPA said its policy was to disclose in such documents that “Richard Windsor” was actually the EPA administrator.
Courts have consistently set a high bar for the government to withhold public officials’ records under the federal privacy rules. A federal judge, Marilyn Hall Patel of California, said in August 2010 that “persons who have placed themselves in the public light” — such as through politics or voluntarily participation in the public arena — have a “significantly diminished privacy interest than others.” Her ruling was part of a case in which a journalist sought FBI records, but was denied.
“We’re talking about an email address, and an email address given to an individual by the government to conduct official business is not private,” said Aaron Mackey, a FOIA attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He said that’s different than, for example, confidential information, such as a Social Security number.
Under the law, citizens and foreigners may use the FOIA to compel the government to turn over copies of federal records for zero or little cost. Anyone who seeks information through the law is generally supposed to get it unless disclosure would hurt national security, violate personal privacy or expose business secrets or confidential decision-making in certain areas.
Obama pledged during his first week in office to make government more transparent and open. The nation’s signature open-records law, he said in a memo to his Cabinet, would be “administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.”
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