Top officials in the U.S. government can use e-mail aliases for official business without violating federal disclosure rules, the chief federal records administrator said as Republicans challenged the practice.
David Ferriero, the U.S. archivist, said at a congressional hearing today that use of an alias e-mail is allowed as long as the messages are preserved and produced in response to a request for records. Current and former officials in President Barack Obama’s administration faced tough questions from Republicans today over their use of private or alias e-mail addresses to conduct official business.
“The National Archives discourages the use of private e-mail accounts to conduct federal business, but understands that there are situations where such use does occur,” Ferriero told the House Government and Oversight Committee today. The archives in a notice yesterday advised agencies that private e-mail accounts, such as Yahoo Mail, should be avoided for public business, and any messages to alias government e-mail addresses should be captured as part of federal records.
Lawmakers on the oversight panel are preparing legislation to ensure that records of federal officials are appropriately captured, and shared with lawmakers, journalists or others who would make requests for the records, Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican and committee chairman, said. Issa said officials such as former Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson didn’t “do their job right” in preserving e-mails from the alias accounts.
Jackson testified today that she wanted her second official e-mail to be firstname.lastname@example.org, because her main e-mail address was overwhelmed with more than a million messages a year. Jackson, now a vice president at Apple Inc., said she chose Richard.Windsor@epa.gov, because her family lived in the town of Windsor and her family dog was named Ricky.
Republicans in Congress argue that Jackson and other officials failed to appropriately manage those records, and, in one case, Jackson asked a lobbyist in an e-mail message to contact her using a personal account instead of the Windsor address.
“From day one of the Obama administration, the EPA has pursued a path of obfuscation, operating in the shadows, and out of legally required sunlight,” Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee said in a report yesterday. “Specifically, the agency established an alias identity to hide the actions” of Jackson, it said.
In addition to Jackson, Gary Gensler, chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, said he used a private e-mail address for his work, and turned over 11,000 e-mails to the committee from that address. “Moving forward, though, I believe that we can and need to do better,” Gensler said. On the use of private e-mail accounts, “we need to narrow the use of it, and ensure it is part of public records. I have learned a lot the past three or four months looking into this.”
Former Energy Department loan program director Jonathan Silver faced questions about his use of private e-mails while at the agency. Before today’s hearings, a representative for the law firm representing Silver asked committee staff not to directly question Silver, according to Issa.
“This one crosses the line,” Issa said, as he put a copy of the e-mail up on a screen in the hearing room.
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