The EPA has failed to train its employees or give them sufficient guidance about abiding by open-records laws, according to an inspector general's report released Monday that chides the agency but clears top-level employees of intentionally trying to hide information by using private email accounts.
Investigators said they talked with top-level employees and found no intent to deceive the public.
"EPA senior officials indicated that they were aware of the agency records management policies and, based only on discussions with these senior officials, [our office] found no evidence that these individuals had used private or alias email to circumvent federal record keeping responsibilities," the inspector general concluded.
Still, after months of complaints about how the Environmental Protection Agency handles emails, the investigators said the agency still hasn't written procedures telling employees how to store private email messages as official agency records.
Critics said the review was too shallow, and said already-released emails show that EPA officials did agency business on their private accounts, and that those emails are not available as public records.
"Relying on documentary evidence as opposed to the most conflicted parties imaginable, we obtained a different conclusion," said Chris Horner, a researcher who has pursued the private emails in his own open-records requests. "Just reviewing the 'Richard Windsor' emails we found two dozen senior EPA officials using private email accounts to correspond with a false identity, not apparently copying their own account as required in the rare instance they are forced to engage in that impermissible action."
Federal open-records laws require key government employees to store their written communications as official records, which can be searched by researchers.
But over the past year reports surfaced that EPA officials were using private email accounts, and Mr. Horner exposed former EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson's use of a secondary government account under the name "Richard Windsor."
Since her main account was listed on the EPA's website and received hundreds of thousands of emails a year, she said she used that secret account to communicate with top-level agency employees.
The investigators, who conducted their review in response to a request from the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said previous administrators did the same thing.
But Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and chairman of that committee, said Ms. Jackson's use was different because she created an alias name for her secret account, which hid her identity altogether.
Indeed, in one of the emails obtained by Mr. Horner, Ms. Jackson pretends to be Richard Windsor in an email exchange, referring to herself in the third person.
Despite clearing officials of intentional violations, the inspector general faulted the agency as a whole for failing to train its employees on how to store records, and on failing to keep up with the proliferation of new technology.
Even now, after months of public criticism, the agency still has not given employees any formal guidance about how to handle private email accounts or secret government accounts, the investigators said.
Mr. Smith said the report "points to an agency with many problems," and said the secondary's address was one of those.
"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," he said.
In its official response to the report, the EPA pointed to new guidance that went out over the summer requiring all employees to retake training on open-records laws next year, and will retrain its workers who are assigned to fulfill Freedom of Information Act requests.
The EPA has also issued new guidance that "strongly discourages the use of private non-EPA email accounts."
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