Whole Lotta Redactin’ Going On

EPA releases thousands of heavily redacted emails from secret account

February 19, 2013

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its second batch of emails from former administrator Lisa Jackson’s secret email address Friday, but the researcher who sued the agency to obtain the records says it improperly redacted nearly all of the information.

The emails, released in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), are from Jackson’s pseudonymous, secondary email account under the name "Richard Windsor."

The emails are the second of four batches of roughly 12,000 emails from the "Richard Windsor" account the EPA has been ordered to disclose.

CEI senior fellow Christopher Horner first reported the existence of Jackson’s secret email address in his book, The Liberal War on Transparency.

EPA officials heavily redacted Friday’s release, omitting all but the most mundane communications. Meeting schedules, discussions of media coverage, and nearly all other content were redacted.

The EPA relied mostly on the "deliberative process" FOIA exemption, which allows agencies to redact intra-agency communications. The argument for the rule is that disclosing internal debates could chill officials’ ability to have forthright discussions about policy.

However, critics say the exemption gives agencies wide latitude and potential for abuse.

For example, an aide forwarded an email to Jackson from a corporate headhunter seeking a recommendation for a "Climate Change Practice Leader in the Washington D.C. area" for an unnamed firm.

Jackson’s response was redacted.

Portions of emails were redacted in some instances, yet those same emails were quoted in full later on in the email chain.

"The only saving grace of this debacle is that, on their face, the overwhelming majority of these claims of ‘deliberative process’ appear to have nothing to do with the sort of agency deliberation that qualifies for withholding," Horner told the Washington Free Beacon.

He said the exemptions "look to be abusive efforts to avoid embarrassing revelations about mystery meetings on Jackson’s schedule, planning spin for, and then characterizing, interviews and media coverage, and so on."

Attorney General Eric Holder issued new FOIA guidelines for federal agencies in 2009, instructing them to adopt a presumption in favor of disclosing information to the public.

"On its face this offers promiscuous abuses of what Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged was FOIA's most-abused provision, which he swore would no longer be so abused," Horner said. "But, like all of this administration's 'transparency' rhetoric, they were only thinking about Bush administration documents when striking the grand poses. It never occurred to them that transparency could soon involve them."

The EPA also invoked a privacy exemption to redact information in several bizarre instances.

According the Justice Department, the privacy exemption permits the government to withhold information about individuals when disclosure "would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

Among the redacted information was an email from EPA General Counsel Scott Fulton to Jackson in which he inquired about the existence of turducken—a meat dish in which chicken is stuffed in a duck, which is then stuffed in a turkey.

"Separate and more important question: is there such a thing as a turduckin [sic] (a New Orleans dish)? Was [REDACTED] and they mentioned this. Not sure if they were pulling my leg."

EPA Facilities Management & Services Director Bridget Shea, in another email, wrote to the EPA deputy chief of staff regarding several paintings the agency was trying to obtain on loan from the Smithsonian.

However, the names of the paintings in question were redacted under the privacy exemption.

"The painting entitled [REDACTED], while available, may not be an appropriate fit as it is 8 feet tall," Shea wrote.

EPA officials have previously told the Free Beacon Jackson’s use of a second account was standard practice and a necessary one because of the hundreds of thousands of emails that flood her public inbox. The agency also said Jackson’s secret account was included in FOIA disclosures.

However, government watchdogs contend Jackson’s use of a secret email address is a possible violation of federal record laws.

"Administrator Jackson’s practice of using fictitious email accounts to conduct official EPA business, shielding the contents from public view, conflicts directly with her responsibility to follow federal records law," said Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) Executive Director Melanie Sloan in a statement. "The fact that others may have engaged in such conduct before her tenure is no justification. ‘Everybody does it’ is an excuse for kindergarteners, not cabinet officials."

The Daily Caller first identified Jackson’s secret alias in November.

Politico later reported "Richard Windsor" is the name of the Jackson family dog.

The EPA inspector general is currently investigating Jackson’s use of the secret email address, as are several congressional committees.

Jackson stepped down as EPA administrator in December.

The EPA was not available for comment.