Even More FOIA Follies

EPA execs use secret email addresses to skirt FOIA, suit alleges

October 3, 2012

Environmental Protection Agency senior executives used secret email addresses to skirt freedom of information laws, a lawsuit by a free-market think tank alleges.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute filed a lawsuit against the EPA last week claiming senior executives at the agency used secret email accounts to conduct public business, shielding their communications from the Freedom of Information Act.

The suit cites an internal EPA memo, first revealed in a 2008 Government Accountability Office, which describes secondary email accounts known only to a "few EPA staff members, usually only high-level senior staff."

CEI is asking the court to compel production of three FOIA requests to the EPA regarding these secondary email addresses.

"In the face of revelations about organized and systemic abuses by senior federal employees to hide from the public their activities, particularly their email, EPA has constructively denied CEI’s requests and its appeal, leaving Plaintiff no recourse but this lawsuit asking this Court to compel EPA to comply with the law," the complaint states.

In a statement to the Free Beacon, an EPA spokeswoman said the agency "is strongly committed to transparency and strictly complies with open government laws such as the Freedom of Information Act. We will review this lawsuit closely and respond as appropriate."

The lawsuit was filed last week by CEI counsel for special projects Hans Bader, CEI senior fellow Chris Horner, and general counsel Sam Kazman.

Horner released The Liberal War on Transparency, a book describing the use of private email addresses by administration officials.

The Obama administration has often used such methods to keep information out of the public record.

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee released a report in July detailing how White House officials met off-site with lobbyists and used private email addresses to avoid triggering disclosure laws.

For example, Jeff Smith, a senior adviser to the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, set up a meeting with a lobbyist at the Caribou Coffee across the street from the White House.

Upon entering office, President Obama pledged to run "the most transparent administration in history."

On his first full day in office, President Obama issued a memo on freedom of information, telling agencies: "The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails."

A Bloomberg investigation found "19 of 20 cabinet-level agencies disobeyed the law requiring the disclosure of public information."

"In all, just 8 of the 57 federal agencies met Bloomberg’s request for those documents within the 20-day window required by the Act," the news organization reported.

An August Washington Post analysis found that early freedom of information progress by the Obama administration "stalled and, in the case of most departments, reversed in direction."

The number of FOIA requests denied in full due to exemptions rose more than 10 percent last year, to 25,636 from 22,834 the previous year, according to the Post’s analysis.