EPA vows better records management amid criticism

The Environmental Protection Agency is pledging to address “any concerns” about management of emails and instant messages and planning new training for staff on compliance with public records laws.

Acting EPA Administrator Robert Perciasepe described the plans in a Monday memo to agency staff that says EPA has attained “important milestones” on transparency in recent years, but has more work to do.

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It vows to be responsive to the ongoing review of EPA's records management practices by the agency's inspector general, which is an internal watchdog.

“We have suggested they place focus on electronic records including email and instant messaging. While we have made progress in these areas, we are committed to addressing any concerns or weaknesses that are identified in this audit and to working collaboratively to strengthen our records management system and policies,” Perciasepe’s memo states.

The memo arrives as several Republicans and conservative groups are alleging the agency lacks transparency and has shielded decision-making from public view.

Gina McCarthy, the nominee to replace former EPA Adminisrator Lisa Jackson, could face questions about the memo when she appears before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Thursday. She is currently EPA's top air quality official.

The Washington Times reported on the memo earlier Monday.

The memo discusses efforts to ensure compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), noting planned development of a “mandatory FOIA training module” for all employees. It also addresses records management that Perciasepe calls “essential” to FOIA.

“Maintaining records consistent with our statutory and regulatory obligations is a central tenet for doing the public’s business in an open and transparent manner. To meet this obligation, we will revise our Agency-wide records training to recognize the new features available with My Workplace, and will in 2013 re-establish the requirement for all EPA employees to take this training,” it states.

“My Workplace” is the computer communications and document-sharing system that EPA has recently put in place.

A pair of conservative groups – the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and the American Tradition Institute – have expanded their push for more records disclosure with a lawsuit alleging EPA had failed to comply with requests for instant messages to and from several senior officials.

The late March lawsuit follows CEI litigation that has led to release of a number of internal emails under former Administrator Jackson’s secondary federal account. Critics have also taken aim use of personal accounts at the agency.

EPA has defended its transparency and refuted claims that Jackson used the “Richard Windsor” account to shield business from public view.

An EPA official said the agency has been reviewing and updating its records-keeping procedures for some time.

But one vocal critic of EPA’s transparency practices called the memo a significant admission.

“This is big not just as a general expression of the problem the know they've got w/us on their heels, but specifically the note re [instant messages]. No one to my knowledge has ever seen one,” said Christopher Horner, the attorney and CEI senior fellow who brought the litigation, in an email Monday afternoon.

He alleged that EPA has either been illegally destroying them, or refusing to find and produce them.

The Perciasepe memo, in contrast, casts the new agency efforts as part of an ongoing commitment to openness during the Obama administration.

“EPA’s firm commitment to transparency and openness in conducting the public’s business has been steadfast since the first days of the Administration.  We have attained several important milestones since then and others are on the path ahead. I am writing to reaffirm our commitment to transparency, to update you on accomplishments and tasks still outstanding, and to ask each of you to play your critical role in this effort,” it states.

Zack Colman contributed