Records Management

Email aliases, personal accounts under House panel scrutiny

email

Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform panel pilloried Obama administration officials – two former and one current -- at a Sept. 10 hearing over their use of email aliases and personal accounts in ways that may have muddied official records.

Former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, who has testified at multiple hearings on the topic, parried questions about her use of the email alias "Richard Windsor" (an amalgam of the name of her dog and the name of her New Jersey hometown) to handle correspondence with senior staffers and the White House. John Silver, who once headed the Loan Programs Office at the Department of Energy, was questioned pointedly about his use of personal email in official correspondence.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the current system allows federal employees "simply either out of laziness or in order to circumvent later discovery" to evade the requirements of the Federal Records Act. He also suggested the proliferation of smartphones that support easy toggling among multiple email accounts and lack of records training as potential causes of poor records management.

But Issa and other committee Republicans did not ascribe such innocuous reasons to alleged lapses by Jackson and Silver, and were clearly frustrated by the lack of access to email records that could yield insight on conversations involving federal loan guarantees to two failed firms, solar panel maker Solyndra and Fisker Automotive, an electric-car company.

Meanwhile, Gary Gensler, chairman of the Commodities Future Trading Commission, cited a lack of records training and inability to access work email from outside the office as reasons why he used personal email for much of his official correspondence. In response to requests from the committee, Gensler found 11,000 emails and 3,000 attachments that were sent to, came from, or were copied to his private e-mail address. In response to the probe into his email practices, Gensler has ordered new restrictions on use of personal email at the CFTC.

The witnesses were selected, Issa said, because all three had circumvented provisions of the Federal Records Act.

Federal records law does not ban federal employees from using personal email on official business, but requires that anything qualifying as a federal record be included in agency archives. In advance of the hearing, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) issued a bulletin advising agency heads on best practices for preserving agency email and specifically on handing alias accounts and private email addresses.

"While agency employees should not generally use personal email accounts to conduct official agency business, there may be times when agencies authorize the use of personal email accounts, such as in emergency situations when Federal accounts are not accessible or when an employee is initially contacted through a personal account," the guidance says. The practice of using an official alias is considered advisable under certain circumstances, to divide public and internal correspondence, or to separate classified and unclassified information.

NARA is concerned that alias accounts be identified with the real name of the individual using it, to ensure that emails can be retrieved by agency officials, oversight bodies, inspectors general and individuals making requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

Republican EPA administrators under President George W. Bush used email aliases. (Christine Todd Whitman used the handle ToWhit for her high-level correspondence.) Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said that criticizing Jackson for a common practice indicates that the hearing was more about "political theater" than reforming federal records law.

But Issa did not object simply to the use of an alias, as Connolly asserted, noting that he himself doesn't use the typical first-name-dot-last-name email address that is standard issue in the House of Representatives. He objected to what he characterized as a deliberate attempt to conceal communications.

"Very clearly, emails have been lost," Issa said, although all three witnesses denied any intentional wrongdoing.

Legislation is in the works to tighten rules on the use of personal email. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member on the Oversight Committee, sponsored the Electronic Message Preservation Act, which would require officials covered by the Federal Records Act to file official correspondence sent via private email with their agency within five days of sending. The bill has been approved by the committee and is awaiting floor action.

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