The Associated Press has uncovered what may become a vast new scandal for the Obama administration: the possibly widespread use of covert email accounts by political appointees, enabling evasion of sunshine laws designed to protect the public. Jack Gillium of AP reports:
Some of President Barack Obama's political appointees, including the Cabinet secretary for the Health and Human Services Department, are using secret government email accounts they say are necessary to prevent their inboxes from being overwhelmed with unwanted messages, according to a review by The Associated Press.
The scope of using the secret accounts across government remains a mystery: Most U.S. agencies have failed to turn over lists of political appointees' email addresses, which the AP sought under the Freedom of Information Act more than three months ago. The Labor Department initially asked the AP to pay more than $1 million for its email addresses.
This looks very bad indeed. Former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has already lost her hob owing to her use of the pseudonym "Richard Windsor" in correspondence with both agency officials and outsiders, including environmental activists. These communications ought to be available through Freedom of Information Act requests, but the use of a covert email account circumvents FOIA search requests.
The secret email accounts complicate an agency's legal responsibilities to find and turn over emails in response to congressional or internal investigations, civil lawsuits or public records requests because employees assigned to compile such responses would necessarily need to know about the accounts to search them. Secret accounts also drive perceptions that government officials are trying to hide actions or decisions.
"What happens when that person doesn't work there anymore? He leaves and someone makes a request (to review emails) in two years," said Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors, an open government group. "Who's going to know to search the other accounts? You would hope that agencies doing this would keep a list of aliases in a desk drawer, but you know that isn't happening."
The officials using covert email accounts include some charged with the implementation of Obamacare, such as HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius and other senior poltiical appointees:
At least two other senior HHS officials - including Donald Berwick, former head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and Gary Cohen, a deputy administrator in charge of implementing health insurance reform - also have secret government email addresses, according to the records obtained by the AP.
This scandal could be really big.Judging by the efforts to evade transparency, there probably is something to hide.
In addition to the email addresses, the AP also sought records government-wide about decisions to create separate email accounts. But the FOIA director at HHS, Robert Eckert, said the agency couldn't provide such emails without undergoing "an extensive and elongated department-wide search." He also said there were "no mechanisms in place to determine if such requests for the creation of secondary email accounts were submitted by the approximately 242 political appointees within HHS."
When caught evading the requirements of sunshine laws, federal agencies are now pleading that it would be too much trouble to reveal what has been kept illegally secret. This practically screams for a Congressional investigation, armed with subpoena powers.
President Obama promised the most transparent administration in history. He should be held to that promise. In fact, the entire contents of all covert email accounts of officials should be published on the internet to enable crowd sourcing of analysis. As AP notes:
Obama pledged during his first week in office to make government more transparent and open. The nation's signature open-records law, he said in a memo to his Cabinet, would be "administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails."
Lucianne Goldberg correctly observes that "The Associated Press plays turn-about on Obama biggies." Turning against its media allies may turn out to have been the biggest PR blunder in its history. We don't even know the magnitude of the scandal yet, but having made his promise, it is entirely fair to hold President Obama to his commitment.