- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

One week after Republicans said Democrats refused to sign onto their letter to the White House seeking clarification on e-mail archiving, Democrats on a House government oversight panel sent their own letter requesting answers to identical questions.

In a letter dated Feb. 27, Rep. Edolphus Towns, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, wrote President Obama’s general counsel asking how the administration is complying with the Presidential Records Act by saving official e-mail correspondence.

Mr. Towns’ letter to Gregory B. Craig copies four questions verbatim from a Feb. 19 letter sent by Rep. Darrell Issa, the committee’s ranking Republican. Jenny Rosenberg, spokeswoman for Mr. Towns, said Mr. Issa’s staff did not ask the New York Democrat to sign onto the letter, but Republican aides insist they did.

In his letter, Mr. Issa noted that the Bush administration’s missteps in complying with the act cost millions of taxpayer dollars to be spent recovering missing e-mails. He also cited press reports about top Obama administration officials who use multiple e-mail accounts for official and unofficial business, warning that messages sent over personal e-mail accounts could be subject to federal archiving rules and might not be captured unless White House staffers forwarded the messages to their government accounts.

The fact that Mr. Towns sent his own letter was first reported Thursday by Mother Jones, a liberal magazine.

Mr. Towns’ decision to keep his inquiry under wraps — in contrast to Mr. Issa, who made his public through a press release — comes in stark contrast to the committee’s handling of e-mail archiving under its previous chairman, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat.

Mr. Waxman, now chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, sent numerous public letters and held several hearings on the mishandling of internal e-mails under the Bush administration.

Ms. Rosenberg refused to address questions about why the committee did not notify the public that it was looking into the issue. But in a comment to Mother Jones, she said, Whether or not [Mr. Towns] is sending out a press release, he’s still not sitting back like the Republicans did when they were doing oversight of the Bush administration.”

Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Mr. Issa, rejected that criticism.

“It is unfair that the majority is criticizing committee Republicans when they’re clearly embarrassed about the fact that they sent esentially the same letter to the White House that Congressman Issa had already asked Congressman Towns to sign on with him jointly,” Mr. Hill said.

Republicans said they first learned that Mr. Towns had sent a similar letter when they received a response from the White House saying the administration intends to respond to the Democratic letter and not the Republican version, which asks three additional questions.

Asked why the Democratic letter cut and pasted questions from Mr. Issa word for word, Ms. Rosenberg said the question was “moot.”

The issue of White House staffers using unofficial e-mail accounts became a point of contention after the Bush administration’s firing of several U.S. attorneys in 2007. During a congressional investigation, the administration said it was unable to produce many internal e-mails that were sent by staffers using Republican National Committee accounts, and thus not captured by the White House archiving system.

The RNC e-mail debacle drew criticism from watchdog groups and spurred a number of hearings before Mr. Issa’s committee under Mr. Waxman. The administration subsequently spent more than $10 million to recover 14 million e-mails.

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