Hillary Clinton is making headlines today for using her private email account to do government business when she was secretary of State, putting her in the growing ranks of top Obama administration officials who have gotten in hot water over their email practices.
The likely 2016 presidential candidate conducted her State Department business exclusively through a personal email account and may have broken government rules that require federal officials to preserve their communications, The New York Times reported yesterday.
But she’s not the first top Obama official whose communications have sparked a scandal.
Officials at U.S. EPA, the Chemical Safety Board and the IRS have all come under fire from members of Congress, conservative groups and transparency advocates amid accusations that they dodged federal records rules by using personal emails or alias accounts or failed to save their correspondence.
"They are all in the same category," said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at the watchdog group Public Citizen. "When we do find out about a senior government official using a private account and not keeping those records available, it results in these types of scandals."
Former EPA chief Lisa Jackson was at the center of a long-running controversy surrounding her use of alias and personal email accounts for official business. Her use of an alias EPA account under the name "Richard Windsor" (named after her dog and the town she grew up in), as well as a personal email account for official business, prompted outrage from the right and a sweeping investigation from congressional lawmakers (Greenwire, Aug. 14, 2013).
Jackson defended her secondary account, saying it was standard practice for the EPA chief and that she tried to comply with federal laws regarding all of her email accounts, including her personal one (Greenwire, Sept. 10, 2013).
Several other senior EPA officials have also been the brunt of criticism for their email practices.
EPA’s New York-based Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck was accused in a Daily Caller story of using a private email account to give advice "to environmental activists, including securing government funding, getting meetings with high-level officials and attending events."
And James Martin, former administrator of EPA’s Region 8 office in Denver, resigned his post in early 2013, less than a month after Republicans announced their investigation of his use of a personal email account for government business (E&ENews PM, Feb. 19, 2013).
EPA’s inspector general office said in a 2013 report that investigators didn’t find evidence that agency officials were using private or alias emails to dodge disclosure rules but that more oversight was needed (E&ENews PM, Sept. 30, 2013).
"All of our administrators have had official EPA accounts that are monitored by EPA employees on our government server," EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said today.
"EPA discourages the use of private emails," she said, adding that the agency has a policy that’s in line with the law requiring employees to move emails from private email accounts to the government system within 20 days.
In another ongoing controversy, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has been criticized for allegations that some of her official texts have gone missing.
The conservative think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute has mounted a legal push to recover McCarthy’s text messages, which they say were improperly destroyed (Greenwire, Feb. 12).
Purchia has said previously the agency "is not aware of any evidence that federal records were unlawfully destroyed."
Out of "an abundance of caution," she said, EPA decided to inform the National Archives and Records Administration that the agency wasn’t aware of any evidence that federal records were unlawfully destroyed. Text messages "are inherently unlikely to qualify for preservation as a federal record, due to the inherent limitations of mobile device communications" (Greenwire, Jan. 15).
"It’s epidemic," Chris Horner, a CEI senior fellow and attorney, said today, citing various examples of problems with the administration’s recordkeeping practices. "It was administrationwide; it began early on."
Tomorrow, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is slated to delve into recent accusations in a recent IG report that officials at the Chemical Safety Board used private email accounts to conduct official business in part to avoid scrutiny from colleagues (E&ENews PM, Feb. 24).
John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, said that while the various controversies are in the same category, the Clinton example "is more egregious in terms of scope and scale," given that it appears to have been more premeditated and more universal. Clinton didn’t even have a government email address during her time leading the State Department, the Times reported.
"There’s clearly a broad-scale problem with electronic records management," Wonderlich said. "This is sort of a symbol for how bad it’s gotten."