One week after Republicans sent a letter to the White House seeking clarification on e-mail archiving, the top Democrat on the same House government oversight panel sent his own letter with identical, cut-and-pasted questions.
To add insult to imitation, Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform had not accepted an invitation to sign the Republicans’ letter.
In a letter dated Feb. 27, Rep. Edolphus Towns, New York Democrat and panel chairman, 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 - word for word - from a Feb. 19 letter sent by Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the panel’s ranking Republican.
In at least two e-mails, an aide to Mr. Issa asked Mr. Towns’ office to sign onto the letter but did not receive a response.
Jenny Rosenberg, a spokesman for Mr. Towns, said the messages sent by Mr. Issa’s staff were inadvertently “overlooked.”
Mr. Issa’s letter noted that the George W. Bush administration’s missteps in complying with the act led to millions of taxpayer dollars being spent to recover missing e-mails. He also cited news 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 forward 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 news 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 would not answer questions about why the committee did not initially 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.”
That statement was rejected by Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Mr. Issa.
“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.
Late Friday, Ms. Rosenberg said the committee had decided to post the Democrats’ letter on the panel Web site Monday.
“We’re happy to put the letter up,” she said.
Republicans said they first learned of Mr. Towns’ 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 a number of internal e-mails that were sent by staffers using Republican National Committee accounts, thus were not captured by the White House archiving system. The administration subsequently spent more than $10 million to recover 14 million e-mails.