With three months to go before Election Day, President Obama’s campaign manager faced a fusillade of questions Wednesday about whether he deliberately skirted disclosure rules during his time as deputy White House chief of staff, undermining the administration’s claim to be “the most transparent administration in history.”
A House Energy and Commerce Committee report released Tuesday revealed several emails from senior White House aides sent from private addresses, as well as email correspondence about meetings with lobbyists purposely scheduled off campus to avoid official records.
Jim Messina, then Mr. Obama’s deputy chief of staff, sent one particularly embarrassing email to a pharmaceutical lobbyist from a personal email account, Politico reported Wednesday.
In it, Mr. Messina promises to “roll” Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who was House speaker at the time, on an agreement between the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and the Senate Finance Committee on provisions in the president’s health care law that Mrs. Pelosi was resisting.
When asked about the use of private emails by top White House staff Wednesday, presidential spokesman Jay Carney said that Republicans were leading a politically charged witch hunt against Mr. Messina just months before the election to try to tarnish the campaign’s top aide and strategist.
“Republicans have spent a great deal of time and money on investigations, which they themselves have characterized as political,” Mr. Carney said. “This is not what the American people want their elected officials in Washington focusing on.”
He then said Mr. Messina used his personal email account but was diligent in copying or forwarding the correspondence to his official email address to preserve records of the emails.
It is unclear exactly when Mr. Messina forwarded or copied the emails to his White House account, and a White House spokesman later did not say exactly when he did so.
The Presidential Records Act requires all official communication to be preserved. The Energy and Commerce Committee’s report accuses the White House of refusing to verify whether White House aides preserved emails about official business sent from personal accounts.
Mr. Carney declined to comment about other aides arranging meetings with lobbyists and others at a coffee shop near the White House to avoid having the names of the people involved show up on White House visitor logs.
“Mr. Messina had a long-standing personal email account at which he got traffic,” Mr. Carney told reporters on Air Force One. “In an effort to comply with all the regulations pertaining to the emails, he would forward emails to his White House account, copy his White House account so that those emails would be part of the presidential record.”
When asked how common it was for White House officials to hold official meetings off-site to avoid transparency requirements, Mr. Carney repeatedly said he had no information for the reporters.
“I don’t have anything on this specific issue,” he said.
Mr. Messina’s emails raise serious questions about efforts to keep certain meetings secret and put intraparty differences about the president’s 2010 health care law into stark relief.
“I will roll [P]elosi to get the 4 billion,” Mr. Messina wrote PhRMA lobbyist Jeffrey Forbes from his personal account days before the health care law passed Congress in March 2010. “As you may have heard I am literally rolling over the house. But there just isn’t 8-10 billion.”
Mrs. Pelosi has not commented publicly on the Messina email.
In another email released Tuesday, Jeff Smith, a senior adviser to the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, offers to meet Jim Kirkland, an executive from the GPS industry, off White House grounds.
LightSquared, a wireless communications company backed by several big Democratic donors, battled the GPS industry for control of frequencies close to the band GPS used.
Republicans, including Rep. Michael R. Turner of Ohio, called for an investigation into whether LightSquared had received preferential treatment from the Federal Communications Commission because one of its investors had given campaign contributions to Mr. Obama.
“Jim — coffee at Caribou Coffee — across the corner from the WH — would work at 11:30 a.m. on Friday … plus getting you through the new WH security rules these days almost takes an act of Congress almost (and you know how well that’s going these days),” Mr. Smith wrote. “[P]lus you’d appear on an official WH Visitor List which is maybe not want you want at this stage.”
A different White House spokesman provided more information about the emails later Wednesday, arguing that Mr. Messina “demonstrated good-faith efforts to comply with the Presidential Records Act.”
But the spokesman did not respond to questions about the practice of White House aides scheduling meetings with lobbyists or others off-site as a way to avoid having the names show up on visitor logs.
“The White House is committed to compliance with the Presidential Records Act,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told The Washington Times, noting that all emails on the White House email system are archived; access to personal email and social networks from the White House network is blocked; and staff members are instructed to use official accounts for official communications.
Mr. Schultz also suggested that Mr. Messina had a personal relationship with the PhRMA lobbyist that predated his time at the White House and would explain why he used his personal email account to communicate with him.
“Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising that when people have pre-existing professional or personal relationships with White House staff, they may periodically use personal email accounts and receive into them emails they must then preserve for official records,” Mr. Schultz said. “While on the White House staff, Mr. Messina occasionally received and sent email on a long-standing personal account. When some of those emails contained information relating to official communications, he took steps to preserve such emails by forwarding them to his White House email account, or copying his White House email account as a recipient.”
The explanations only led to more questions from Republicans who blasted the White House on the off-campus meetings, as well as the emails Mr. Messina and others sent from personal accounts.
“The self-proclaimed most-transparent administration in history isn’t the most transparent after all,” Reince Priebus, Republican National Committee chairman, said on a conference call with reporters. “Here we go again. … The Obama White House is clearly deceiving the American people and they are deceiving them over a Caribou latte.”
When pressed about what presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney would do differently if he wins the White House, Mr. Priebus referred the question to Mr. Romney’s campaign.
Mr. Priebus also was asked how the recent revelations compare with evidence that the Bush White House did similar things.
“I’m not here to re-litigate any of those fights,” he said.