Another twist in EPA email debate

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) might be using secret and personal email addresses "in bad faith" to flout public records laws, a federal judge said Wednesday. 

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U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth said conservative law firm Landmark Legal Foundation can investigate whether EPA officials used personal accounts for business and if the agency excluded correspondence from top officials from the law firm’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

"The possibility that unsearched personal email accounts may have been used for official business raises the possibility that leaders in the EPA may have purposefully attempted to skirt disclosure under the FOIA," Lamberth, who was appointed by former President Ronald Reagan, wrote in the opinion.

Landmark had sued the agency last year, claiming it withheld documents from then-Administrator Lisa Jackson and other agency brass. Lamberth agreed that was a possibility, and that the agency might have excluded communication from personal email addresses.

The decision lets Landmark question the EPA on whether top officials used personal email accounts to conduct official business during the time period covered in the lawsuit — in effect, putting the agency on record regarding its email habits.

The ruling is the latest twist in a months-long debate regarding the EPA’s email practices, which watchdog groups and GOP lawmakers allege could run afoul of federal sunlight laws.

The Landmark decision generated momentum for groups that have fought for more information about the EPA’s records-keeping techniques, Sam Kazman, general counsel with conservative group the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told The Hill.

“It demonstrates that the courts are coming to realize something that many of us have long suspected — namely that, when it comes to public disclosure, EPA talks a lot about transparency but its real goal is invisibility,” he said in an email.

The ruling comes a week after the EPA released a batch of emails in which one showed Jackson, under the alias “Richard Windsor,” asking a Siemens employee to contact her on a personal email account.

“P.S. Can you use my home email rather than this one when you need to contact me directly? Tx, Lisa,” Jackson said in the email to Siemens official Alison Taylor.

It’s unclear whether any communication occurred after that. But Republicans and watchdog groups said it’s hard to imagine otherwise.

It’s also unlikely, they said, that Jackson forwarded the correspondence to her government email address, which federal law requires so documents can be picked up in public records requests.

“I think that this is not the first time. There is sort of growing evidence. They’re getting sloppy on this,” Anne Weismann, chief counsel with the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told The Hill on Thursday.

The EPA’s Office of Inspector General is currently investigating whether the agency’s officials’ email practices amounted to foul play.

The EPA has defended its use of separate emails, saying such activity dates back to former President George W. Bush’s administration. It also contends all correspondence from those emails turn up in public records requests.

“The Environmental Protection Agency is committed to adhering to the appropriate regulations and laws for both federal records management and email use. EPA continues to work with the Inspector General in its review of EPA's email practices and policies, and is prepared to give full consideration to any recommendations for improvements identified in that review,” Alisha Johnson, a spokeswoman with the EPA, told The Hill in an email Thursday.

That hasn’t satisfied Capitol Hill Republicans, a pair of which called on the Obama administration to crack down on the email practices.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called the development regarding Jackson’s email to the Siemens employee “troubling.”

“This practice runs afoul of the president’s promise to run the most transparent administration in history and creates an undeniable impression that officials are engaging in inappropriate behavior,” Issa said in a statement.

And Sen. David VitterDavid Bruce VitterGrocery group hires new top lobbyist Lobbying World Senate confirms Trump judge who faced scrutiny over abortion views MORE (R-La.), who secured a promise from the EPA last month that it would revamp its records-keeping training for employees, said more work must be done to ensure federal laws weren’t violated.

“Even with EPA’s recent promises to review and revamp its email practices and policies, the mere fact that the agency’s Administrator was trying to circumvent ‘sunshine’ laws is a huge red flag for the effectiveness of the agency and the administration,” the Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member said in a statement.