More Transparency, Please

EPA secret email flap could tangle up McCarthy nomination

Gina McCarthy / AP

President Barack Obama tapped Environmental Protection Agency official Gina McCarthy to head the agency on Monday, but a widening probe into the use of secret email addresses by high-level EPA officials could slow her nomination and cause headaches for the administration.

Obama chose McCarthy, current assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation at the EPA, to replace former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson.

Jackson resigned amid growing scrutiny over her use of a secret email address to conduct official business, which watchdog groups say is a possible violation of federal record laws.

Some Republicans see the alleged misconduct as a sign of a larger culture of secrecy and opacity at the EPA.

"The EPA is in desperate need of a leader who will stop ignoring congressional information requests, hiding emails and more from the public, and relying on flawed science," Sen. David Vitter (R., La.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said in a statement Monday. "McCarthy has been directly involved in much of that, but I hope she can reverse those practices with Lisa Jackson’s departure. I look forward to hearing answers from her on a number of key issues."

Several GOP-led House committees have also been probing the "Richard Windsor" email flap and other transparency issues at the agency despite not having a say on who will replace Jackson.

House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology chairman Lamar Smith (R., Texas) and Vitter released a letter to McCarthy Monday seeking the science underpinning new air quality rules and criticizing the agency’s lack of openness.

Vitter has several outstanding requests for information regarding the science behind the agency’s regulations, which the EPA has thus far refused to disclose.

Republicans are seeking data sets the EPA used as the basis for its claim of $2 trillion worth of Clean Air Act benefits between 1990 and 2020. The EPA asserts the benefits of those air regulations exceed the costs by a 30-to-1 ratio.

Vitter and Smith wrote in their letter that the EPA’s "troubling reliance on secret data belies the oft-repeated claims that this is the most transparent administration in history and that you will restore scientific integrity in government decision-making."

"You and other high-ranking administration officials have repeatedly backtracked and reneged on promises to members of Congress to make the scientific info that underpins the agency's basic associations between air quality and mortality available to the public and independent scientists over the last year and a half," Smith and Vitter wrote.

Meanwhile, the EPA inspector general continues to investigate Jackson’s "Richard Windsor" account. It is not known when the report will be released, but the results could be damaging if made public in the midst of the confirmation process.

Jackson used an internal EPA email address under the pseudonym Richard Windsor to communicate with other high-level EPA officials and confidants. The EPA says the use of a secret account was standard practice, given the millions of emails that flood the administrator’s public inbox.

Competitive Enterprise Institute senior fellow Chris Horner first revealed the secret account in his book, The Liberal War on Transparency. The Daily Caller first linked the name "Richard Windsor" to the account in November.

The recent release of thousands of emails from Jackson’s "Richard Windsor" account through a Freedom of Information Act request is now ensnaring other EPA officials.

Acting EPA administrator Bob Perciasepe and Region 9 administrator Jared Blumenfeld both used private email accounts to correspond with Jackson, FOIA documents reveal.

EPA Region 8 administrator James Martin resigned in February while under congressional investigation for using his personal email address to conduct agency business.

While the messages in question were innocuous—nothing more than forwarding news articles—they have fueled controversy over the lack of transparency at the agency.

McCarthy’s nomination is almost all but assured in the Democratic Senate. The Senate has already confirmed her once.

McCarthy is "the right person for the job, and we will move forward with her confirmation hearing as quickly as possible," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) said in a statement.

"The president could not have picked a more qualified person to lead EPA at this critical time," Boxer said. "The combination of her experience, intelligence, energy, and unquestioned expertise will make Gina an effective EPA administrator. She has a deep understanding that the health and safety of the American people depends on clean air and clean water."