House Science, Space and Technology Committee leaders are pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to crack down employees reportedly using encrypted chat apps to circumvent agency rules and public records laws.
Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and oversight subcommittee Chairman Darin LaHood (R-Ill.) sent a letter to EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins on Tuesday asking him to investigate “a group of approximately a dozen career EPA officials … using an encrypted messaging application, Signal, to discuss potential strategies against any attempts by newly appointed political officials to redirect the EPA’s priorities.”
The letter cites a Politico report from earlier this month.
“Reportedly, this group of career officials at the EPA are aiming to spread their goals covertly to avoid federal records requirements, while also aiming to circumvent the government’s abilities to monitor their communications,” the GOP lawmakers wrote.
That allegation is more severe than the reporting in the Politico article, which said fewer than a dozen EPA employees are using Signal to discuss what to do if political appointees from the Trump administration undermine the agency’s mission or attempt to delete scientific data the agency has been collecting.
One EPA worker told Politico the goal is to “create a network [of people] across the agency” who will respond if a Trump appointee attempts to do anything unlawful.
The article does not specifically say EPA workers are trying to avoid public records laws or conduct business outside of the reach of Freedom Of Information Act inquiries.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who also sits on the Science Committee, defended the employees, saying it’s likely they wanted to discuss job security over a medium their bosses could not monitor.
A leaked transition memo suggested more than $800 million in budget cuts at the EPA and the agency was a target of Trump’s on the campaign trail.
“I think there is a lot of fear in government right now,” Beyer said. “It sounds more like employees are worried than conducting official business.”
Not all communications between employees count as federal records. According to a National Archives Bulletin, records are only created while “conducting business” and federal employees are legally allowed to have personal accounts outside the federal records system.
Employees are discouraged from conducting official business over personal email, however, and are required to forward any federal record created or received from a personal account to one that can be archived.
“At some point, you have to let employees have a personal life,” said Ernesto Falcon, legislative director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Though the EPA employees may not be breaking the law, the optics may cause problems for the agency.
“As a policy matter, I would rather agencies are over-inclusive in terms of the records they retain than under-inclusive,” said Adam Marshall, Knight Foundation litigation attorney at the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Smith and LaHood’s letter comes after Axios reported that GOP operatives, including White House staffers are using the encrypted chat app Confide to avoid leaks.
“The federal law should be obeyed – whether the EPA, the Executive Branch, or anyone else,” Beyer said. “But at a minimum, the Executive Branch should be held to the standard of the EPA.”