The Environmental Protection Agency may have intentionally skirted public disclosure requirements under the Freedom of Information Act, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
U. S. District Judge for the District of Columbia Royce Lamberth ordered the EPA to submit to discovery in a case brought against it by the conservative group Landmark Legal Foundation and said the foundation can seek information to determine whether top EPA officials used personal email accounts to conduct official business.
"The possibility that unsearched personal email accounts may have been used for official business raises the possibility that leaders in the EPA may have purposefully attempted to skirt disclosure under the FOIA," Lambert wrote. "The possibility that the agency purposefully excluded the top leaders of the EPA from the search, at least initially, suggests an unreasonable and bad faith reading of Landmark’s FOIA request and subsequent agreement to narrow its scope."
Lambert also said the EPA's statements concerning its search for records were incomplete and "contain numerous inconsistencies and reversals which undermine confidence in their truthfulness."
Landmark Legal Foundation filed suit last year seeking records that the EPA was delaying the announcement of new regulations until after the presidential election.
Since then, several EPA officials, including former EPA awdministrator Lisa Jackson, were found to have been using personal email addresses to conduct official business. In Jackson’s case, she also had a secret EPA email address under the pseudonym "Richard Windsor."
The EPA argued such private accounts were common practices for high-level officials, whose public inboxes are flooded with millions of messages a year. However, transparency advocates say the practice is troubling because of its potential for abuse.
Jackson resigned earlier this year in the midst of a congressional investigation into the EPA’s record keeping practices.
The investigation uncovered more questionable practices among high-level agency officials. An EPA regional administrator resigned in the midst of a congressional probe after it was revealed he used private email to conduct business.
In response to the investigations, the EPA inspector general announced it was auditing the agency’s FOIA compliance and record keeping. The EPA also announced it would retrain its more than 17,000 employees on record keeping
An Associated Press investigation earlier this year found secret email addresses used by other top Obama administration officials, such as Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.