Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has used his Massachusetts Institute of Technology email account for department business.
Greenwire obtained a copy of Moniz’s first personal email used for work purposes under a Freedom of Information Act request. That message has Moniz’s email address redacted for privacy reasons, but a Department of Energy spokeswoman confirmed the email was from the secretary’s MIT account. Moniz was a physics professor there before returning to the Department of Energy as secretary in 2013.
"thanks Bob. cheers."
That is all Moniz said in response to an email from Robert Corell, a climate scientist, who congratulated the nuclear physicist on taking charge of DOE. Corell also noted he was sending the department the "complete Global Energy Assessment (GEA) Technical Report," as well as a summary document.
"Dear Ernie: Congrats again as you take the reins of DOE and guide it forward," Corell said.
The exchange happened about seven days after Moniz won Senate confirmation as Energy secretary in May 2013. It is legal for government officials to use their private accounts for work matters as long as they copy or forward those emails into their official government accounts within 20 days.
It’s not clear whether Moniz has used his personal email for work since that original exchange because Greenwire only requested the secretary’s first private message used for department business.
The struggle to obtain this one-page document, however, has now led to several FOIA requests and a congressional investigation.
In March last year, Greenwire sent FOIAs to roughly 20 federal agencies, including DOE, for copies of the first emails sent by their leaders from their government and personal email accounts meant for agency business. In light of the uproar over Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email server while secretary of State, the documents would show who else in the Obama administration was emailing outside of the system.
Moniz was one of the officials found to have used a private email account for department business. That revelation came not from a response to the FOIA request but from a department press officer (Greenwire, Feb. 29).
Now, more than a year since that first FOIA, DOE has turned over records related to Moniz’s use of personal email in response to another Greenwire request. The fact that the initial FOIA did not reveal Moniz’s personal email grabbed the attention of lawmakers who questioned DOE’s commitment to transparency.
Last month, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee sent DOE a much more expansive request for records on Moniz’s and other DOE officials’ use of personal email for department business. The panel gave the department a deadline of today and said if DOE refused to comply, it could face a subpoena for the documents (Greenwire, April 15).
A House Science Committee aide said the panel has just heard back from DOE regarding the records related to use of personal email for department business.
"We just received a production from DOE on this issue. The committee will review, but at first glance, there are still outstanding requests for which DOE did not provide information," said the committee aide.
After reviewing Moniz’s personal email obtained by Greenwire under FOIA, the aide said the record shows that DOE needs to comply with the panel’s information request.
"The email you shared, while not itself a violation of federal records laws, reiterates the need for a full response to the Committee’s requests," said the aide, noting the document raised even more questions.
"How many other emails discussing official DOE business were sent to the secretary’s personal email? Did he always respond with a copy to his official DOE account? Why had the agency been unwilling to answer the committee’s questions about the secretary’s use of personal email for more than a month?"
Earlier in the week, DOE said it was working on a response to the Science panel’s request for Moniz’s and others’ personal email.
Using private email for agency business can be troublesome for federal officials. Dan Metcalfe, former director of the Justice Department’s Office of Information and Privacy, where he oversaw FOIA, warned that the Energy secretary should avoid using his personal email for work.
"Moniz should not be using personal email routinely for agency business. Doing it routinely is contrary to the requirements of the Federal Records Act," said Metcalfe, now an adjunct law professor at American University Washington College of Law. "It’s OK for him to do it occasionally where necessary under exigent circumstances, but not routinely."
Since its original request in March 2015, Greenwire filed another two FOIAs related to Moniz’s use of personal email.
One of those requests was fulfilled yesterday when DOE provided a copy of Moniz’s first personal email used for department business. Nevertheless, both those requests surpassed the 20-business-day time limit that agencies are required to respond to requests under the law.
The remaining request was for the "processing notes" on the original FOIA for Moniz’s email filed last year. Processing notes can show how a FOIA office handled a request, often including officials’ internal discussions on what and what not to release to a requester.
Alexander Morris, DOE’s FOIA officer, told Greenwire he hopes to issue a response by next week to the FOIA request for the original request’s processing notes.
The first request for Moniz’s email turned up two pages of documents showing the secretary uses two government email accounts, including one under the moniker of "S1."
Lawmakers have asked Moniz during congressional testimony whether he forwards his personal email used for department business onto a government account as required under law, which the secretary said he does (Greenwire, March 23).
It looks like Moniz has held to that practice. He copied his response to Corell to "Secretary Moniz," which is his other government email account.
Since late 2014, federal records law has required government officials who use personal email for agency business to copy or forward those emails into their official government accounts within 20 days.
Metcalfe said by forwarding his personal email onto his government account, the secretary was a creating a public record that FOIA officials should have access to.
"That is another source for the agency FOIA folks to search," Metcalfe said. "He [Moniz] is taking a step to create a record where the agency has access to it and can easily search for it because it’s the official account under his name."