The Environmental Protection Agency is blocking the release of key information around an alias email account used by its previous secretary by inappropriately applying a Freedom of Information Act exemption, three Republican lawmakers say.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R. Texas), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, and Sen. David Vitter (R., La.), ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee wrote a letter to the EPA’s inspector general yesterday requesting he broaden his ongoing investigation into the EPA to examine whether the agency improperly used FOIA exemptions.
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The EPA’s inspector general has been investigating whether the agency "follows applicable laws and regulations when using private and alias email accounts to conduct official business," according to the letter. The inspector general opened the inquiry at the request of Smith’s committee.
"Since this initial request was sent, it has come to our attention that EPA is invoking questionable Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exceptions to prevent the public from knowing the various email address(es) used by the administrator. Specifically, EPA has been improperly invoking Exemption 6 of FOIA to hide the email account name, the domain name, and the server used by Lisa Jackson in her capacity as administrator," the lawmakers wrote in the letter.
Exemption 6 protects an individual’s "personal privacy interests" from being released through a FOIA request, according to the Department of Justice.
The lawmakers wrote that Jackson used the "Richard Windsor" account "exclusively for internal agency correspondence," meaning "the administrator has no personal privacy interest in her alias email account."
"It’s a facially implausible use of the exemption, but we don’t know what’s behind it," said Chris Horner, senior fellow for the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Horner’s investigations uncovered the Windsor account.
The EPA revealed Jackson used several iterations of her name in four different email accounts under her real identity as well as another email under the false name Richard Windsor, Horner said.
The district court for the District of Columbia has requested an update on the "state of play" regarding the email accounts, Horner said. The Department of Justice and Horner are working on language for a joint statement for the court.
At least one other EPA official has used a personal email account to conduct official business.
Lawmakers have complained about the EPA’s incomplete compliance with congressional requests. House Republicans threatened "formal action" against the EPA in late January if it did not fully comply with their request.
The false-email scandal emerged in September 2012 after the Competitive Enterprise Institute sued the EPA to force it to release information on alias emails used by upper-level officials.
Chairman Issa and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D., Md.) of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee sent a letter to the Department of Justice last week inquiring into why the administration’s agencies have not improved their FOIA policies despite a directive from Attorney General Eric Holder in 2009.
"For more than a decade, EPA Administrators have been assigned two official, government-issued email accounts: a public account and an internal account," said an EPA spokeswoman. "The email address for the public account is posted on EPA's website and is used by hundreds of thousands of Americans to send messages to the Administrator. The internal account is an everyday, working email account of the Administrator to communicate with staff and other government officials. …
"In the case of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, both the public and internal accounts are reviewed for responsive records, and responsive records from both accounts are provided to FOIA requesters."