Lawmakers question officials' use of personal, secret email accounts

Tuesday - 9/10/2013, 5:14pm EDT

For years, as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson corresponded about work matters using an email account under the fake name "Richard Windsor."

The Chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission Gary Gensler frequently conducted business using his personal email — as many as 11,000 emails related to his work passed through his private account.

Current and former Obama administration officials' use of personal email addresses and secret, secondary email accounts to conduct official business came under scrutiny at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Tuesday.

Jackson, Gensler and other officials told the committee they never intended to evade federal records and transparency laws. The use of personal email to conduct official business is not prohibited by law. Similarly, the use of secondary email accounts — even those containing aliases — is not prohibited, and sometimes used by other agencies as well.

However, critics of the practice say it increases the risk that important communications will slip through the cracks. Or worse yet, be used to deliberately circumvent federal records laws.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the committee called it a "pervasive problem" that predates the Obama administration. "But it has not been corrected and, in fact, has proliferated," he said.

Agencies gear up for 2016 digital deadline

The officials called to testify Tuesday pointed to challenges in managing electronic records — a lack of training about the use of personal email and the rapidly changing nature of digital communications.

The National Archives and Records Administration is working to correct that. Late last month, NARA issued a bulletin to agencies detailing a new automated system for managing email records. Under a previous NARA directive, agencies are expected to have digital recordkeeping systems in place by the end of 2016.

President Barack Obama kicked off a multiyear effort to revamp federal recordkeeping policies in November 2011.

Archivist of the United States David Ferriero testified the new approach is already having an impact.

"In response to the directive, each agency designated a senior official to oversee and ensure compliance with records management statutes and regulations — not a records manager, a senior agency official with that responsibility," Ferriero said.

Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) is also seeking to enshrine many of these practices into law. Both the Electronic Message Preservation Act and a series of amendments to the Presidential and Federal Records Act, which Cummings introduced, have been reported out of the oversight committee and await votes in the full House

In the meantime, the Obama administration officials told the committee that records generated via personal email were transmitted back to official email accounts where they could be captured for record-keeping purposes.

But Issa said many email records are still unaccounted for. "Only emails that have been found through ordinary efforts have been found," he said. "But, very clearly, emails have been lost."

'It's about time management and efficiency ...'

Under fierce questioning from Republicans on the committee, Lisa Jackson, now vice president of environmental initiatives at Apple, maintained her use of a secret, secondary email account as EPA administrator was to ensure she could do her job more efficiently.

Her publicly available email receives more than 1 million emails every year, she said.

"Managing an inbox that big is more than one person can handle and still do their job effectively, to say the least," she said. "That's why many members of Congress as well as the executive branch set up a second account. It's about time management and efficiency."

Initially, she said, she suggested naming the second account "adminjackson" but because EPA's email database was publicly searchable, career EPA employees recommended using an alias that resembled an actual name.

"My husband and sons were still living in East Windsor, N.J, and our family dog's name is Ricky," Jackson said. "So, with tongue in cheek, I named my account Windsor-dot-Richard-at-EPA-dot-gov."

Jackson said the use of alias email accounts was also standard practice under her Republican predecessor. Further, the "Richard Windsor" account was considered an official account and subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, she added.

Neither federal law nor NARA guidance prohibit the use of secondary accounts, even those containing pseudonyms, according to Ferriero.

In fact, NARA issued a bulletin to agencies this week recognizing that some agencies may have a business need for multiple accounts.