Open Gov

More top officials found using secret email accounts

E-mail circling the globe

An Associated Press investigation has found that high-level political appointees in the Obama administration are using secret email aliases, in part to avoid the cluttered inboxes of their public email accounts.

Former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson used an email account under the name of "Richard Windsor," which came to light in 2012. Now, AP has learned that Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, used a secret government email account for correspondence, separate from her public email address. Other senior officials at HHS used non-public email addresses, according to the report. Acting Labor secretary Seth D. Harris has three official email accounts, including one that was kept secret.

When the AP initially requested the email addresses of political appointees from the Labor department, the agency said the search would cost more than $1 million – a rather high price tag for a Freedom of Information Act request. The agency said the search would take 14 weeks, entail pulling 2,236 backup tapes and require 50 people to search records. The department eventually dropped the high fee, saying it was a mistake.

At HHS, the agency's FOIA director said there were, "no mechanisms in place to determine if such requests for the creation of secondary email accounts were submitted by the approximately 242 political appointees within HHS."

Jackson's pseudonymous email was the subject of a House Oversight Committee investigation earlier this year. Officials justify the practice by noting that their official in-boxes are clogged with e-mail, and aren't much use for running day-to-day departmental affairs. Problems arise, say transparency advocates, when correspondence using such alternate or secret email addresses is not archived in the appropriate place, or included in FOIA requests for email records.

The AP is still seeking lists of email addresses for political appointees at ten other agencies.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is FCW's senior staff writer, and covers Congress, health IT and governmentwide IT policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @thisismaz.

The 2015 Federal 100

Meet 100 women and men who are doing great things in federal IT.


  • Shutterstock image (by venimo): e-learning concept image, digital content and online webinar icons.

    Can MOOCs make the grade for federal training?

    Massive open online courses can offer specialized IT instruction on a flexible schedule and on the cheap. That may not always mesh with government's preference for structure and certification, however.

  • Shutterstock image (by edel): graduation cap and diploma.

    Cybersecurity: 6 schools with the right stuff

    The federal government craves more cybersecurity professionals. These six schools are helping meet that demand.

  • Rick Holgate

    Holgate to depart ATF

    Former ACT president will take a job with Gartner, follow his spouse to Vienna, Austria.

  • Are VA techies slacking off on Yammer?

    A new IG report cites security and productivity concerns associated with employees' use of the popular online collaboration tool.

  • Shutterstock image: digital fingerprint, cyber crime.

    Exclusive: The OPM breach details you haven't seen

    An official timeline of the Office of Personnel Management breach obtained by FCW pinpoints the hackers’ calibrated extraction of data, and the government's step-by-step response.

  • Stephen Warren

    Deputy CIO Warren exits VA

    The onetime acting CIO at Veterans Affairs will be taking over CIO duties at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

  • Shutterstock image: monitoring factors of healthcare.

    DOD awards massive health records contract

    Leidos, Accenture and Cerner pull off an unexpected win of the multi-billion-dollar Defense Healthcare Management System Modernization contract, beating out the presumptive health-records leader.

  • Sweating the OPM data breach -- Illustration by Dragutin Cvijanovic

    Sweating the stolen data

    Millions of background-check records were compromised, OPM now says. Here's the jaw-dropping range of personal data that was exposed.

  • FCW magazine

    Let's talk about Alliant 2

    The General Services Administration is going to great lengths to gather feedback on its IT services GWAC. Will it make for a better acquisition vehicle?

Reader comments

Wed, Jun 5, 2013 Gov 101

Having another email account doesn't necessarily mean covert actions. Anyone who's been at a high-level position knows they can receive hundreds of emails a day. Having a alias email account for designated correspondence is a natural method for prioritizing emails. Check with corporate America to see this is a common practice. Also using made-up names for the accounts is a necessity, because anyone can search the email directory and find accounts based on versions of a person's actually name. THAT BEING SAID, for Gov officials, all email accounts should be linked to them for audit purposes and vetted by their security offices.

Wed, Jun 5, 2013 Peter

By the IT guys, y'all are surprised that politcal appointees at ANY agency may have multiple e-mail accounts???? Good god, that has probably gone on for next to forever.

Wed, Jun 5, 2013 Peter

Obviously previous poster wants to remain anonymous, since s/he must think that the Bush/Cheney administration was the most righteous team ever, and thus disregarding the greatest rip-off in history, i.e., the trillions of dollars and thousands of lives corruptly wasted in the adventures started in Iraq and Afghanistan. Plus s/he must know those WMDs were fake by now too, right???

Wed, Jun 5, 2013

You are not dealing with reality to think that these people do this "to avoid the cluttered inboxes of their public email accounts." K PA points out the obvious and provides much needed clarity lacking in this article and many of the defenders of this type of corruption going on in this administration. For honest, rational people, this is just another item showing again that this is one of the most, if not the most, corrupt administrations ever. For those of you trying to blame Republicans for the corruption of the party you voted for, learn to take some responsibility and start being honest. For those saying it is the same as the AP wanting to keep its files secret, learn the difference betweeen PRIVATE sector and PUBLIC sector. (Hint - look it up in the dictionary.)

Wed, Jun 5, 2013

@Disgusted. "Dribble"??? The Obama administration from day one touted transparency in govt. Actually falsifying an e-mail account name to avoid the light of day (FOIA request) flies in the face of the president's transparency platform. Another poster said there should be limits for delving into govt records but admonishes the AP for complaining about the same. Excuse me. The AP is private, the govt is public. I know of no state that granted the federal govt the right to hide from the people. The federal govt acts like it has rights that they desire, not what the states allowed them. It's like America is upside down. And for the poster that alleged that Cheney did a lot of energy policy in secret as if it were a complaint. Well here's "Cheney Jr." - the Obama administration. For the administration to state this is simply to better facilitate internal communications is laughable. Add the extension, don't LIE about your name which is an attempt to deceive. How can this even facilitate communication anyway? Everyone has got to remember your "name". Lol!!! This is just sleazy and absoultely disgusting.

Show All Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above