A top official at a controversial U.S. export finance agency deleted text messages sent within days of the 2014 midterm elections after a watchdog group filed an open records request for the messages, the agency admitted recently.
The watchdog group, Cause of Action, said the deletion amounts to "unlawful destruction of federal records" in a legal complaint filed on Wednesday.
The group filed a Freedom of Information Act request on Nov. 14 asking for text messages sent or received by top officials at the U.S. Export-Import Bank from Nov. 2 to Nov. 8.
Ex-Im responded months later, saying in a May reply that messages from Scott Schloegel, the chief of staff and senior vice president, "were accidentally deleted on approximately January 1, 2015," more than a month after Cause of Action filed its FOIA request.
Schloegel signed a sworn declaration in March attesting that he "deleted, by mistake, the messages on my phone for the period in question."
Cause of Action is now filing a legal complaint "to ask the Justice Department and/or Congress to initiate action to recover the deleted messages," it announced on Wednesday.
The complaint alleges that Ex-Im violated the Federal Records Act—by its own admission—by failing to preserve official intra-office communications.
"The fact that a top official at the Export-Import Bank deleted his text messages several weeks after our organization asked to see them raises serious questions," Dan Epstein, Cause of Action’s executive director, said in a statement. "Furthermore, it’s puzzling that it took the Bank another four months to let us know that this happened."
Cause of Action’s Ex-Im FOIA request was the latest in what the group’s complaint describes as "an investigation into whether federal agencies comply with their obligation to preserve text messages for a period of time."
Federal laws governing the preservation of official communications have made headlines in the wake of revelations that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deleted tens of thousands of emails from a personal email server run out of her New York home.
"The public deserves to know what their government is up to, and we will work tirelessly to continue to hold these federal agencies accountable," Epstein said in his statement.
Funding for the Ex-Im Bank is set to expire at the end of the month. Congressional Republicans have indicated that they will allow it to do so, effectively shutting down the agency.
Ex-Im representatives did not return a request for comment.