Oversight scrutinizes use of private email accounts by Obama officials

A top financial regulator told House lawmakers on Tuesday that he never received training to ensure that official business emails were saved on his formal government account. 

The statement from Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) head Gary Gensler came at a House Oversight Committee hearing designed to draw attention to what Republicans say is a growing lack of transparency on the part of the Obama administration.

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Republicans say too much business is being done through private emails rather than on official accounts, which has allowed internal decision making to be immune from public oversight.

“Transparency requires two things: One, that you let the sunshine in, and secondly that information be available to sunlight,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the committee. 

“The fact is, when private emails are used and often deleted, they eliminate availability, even when the sunshine is provided,” he said. Multiple Obama administration officials have come under fire from Republicans for their use of private emails for official business.

The most notable target has been former Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson, who appeared at Tuesday’s hearing.

She said she had received training on maintaining emails for federal records. However, Issa and his Republican colleagues reiterated charges that she had bypassed normal rules when using an EPA email account seeming to belong to a man named Richard Windsor.

Jackson said the EPA has long allowed top officials to use separate email accounts in addition to their public ones.

“As you know firsthand, public officials get a lot of email,” she told lawmakers on the committee, adding that the EPA head can receive a new email every 30 seconds.

“Managing an inbox that big is more than one person can handle and still do their job effectively, to say the least,” she said.

But that second email account, the Republicans worried, made it more difficult to search for a full record of her correspondence at the EPA.

They also chided her for emails that seem to show her asking a lobbyist to email her on her personal account, though Jackson maintained that the correspondence was not business-related.

The lobbyist “was a friend and I believe that personal friends should use personal emails,” she said.

Omissions of that sort prevent proper oversight of federal officials, Issa worried.

Under federal law, executive branch officials are required to maintain the official emails they send and receive so that their information is preserved for the American public and journalists to request under the Freedom of Information Act and other laws.

When they use private email accounts, they are supposed to forward the messages to their official accounts to make sure they are kept for records.

Gensler said that he “routinely” used his personal email account to conduct business in the evenings and when he was out of the office.

He maintained that, when he started, he simply didn’t know any better.

“Having come to this job after years of not working in a traditional office setting and primarily being a single, stay-at-home dad, frankly, I was not attuned to the ways of accessing work email at home,” he said. “At the CFTC we didn’t have a robust training program – and I personally did not receive training – on either remote access or federal records.”

Gensler said that “approximately 99 percent” of his emails were to other government officials and had, thus, been recorded. He added that he has turned the rest of the relevant emails over to the CFTC.

Also facing lawmakers’ questions was Jonathan Silver, the former head of the Department of Energy’s loan program, who oversaw the government’s $535 million loan guarantee to the troubled solar energy company Solyndra.

“[D]on’t ever send an email on [DOE] email with a personal addresses,” he wrote in a 2011 email to colleagues. “That makes them subpoenable.”

That missive, said lawmakers, is proof that he wanted to hide correspondence from the public.

“You’re concealing things on private email accounts because you’re trying to get your friends taxpayer money,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).

Silver responded that the email was misinterpreted.

Officials in both the Obama and Bush administrations have come under fire over their preservation of emails for public oversight.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said that if Congress wanted to get serious about cracking down on abuse of private emails, they were questioning the wrong people.

“We really ought to be calling a number of officials from the previous administration back here because that was pretty egregious, actually. That was deliberate circumvention and distraction,” he said.

Issa said that the problem began as new technology became commonplace toward the end of the Bush administration. However, “it has not been corrected and in fact has proliferated” under President Obama.

Under former President George W. Bush, millions of White House emails were temporarily lost and officials used Republican National Committee email accounts for official business.

What the federal government needs, said David Ferriero, the national archivist, is a paradigm shift.

Agencies need “the development of a new culture around records that involved an inspector general, legal counsel, the [chief investigating officer], the entire agency in helping make the transition to electronic records more robust and … to make it possible for Americans to know what’s going on,” he said.