Officials' deleted e-mail raises eyebrows

Investigation Of Possible Presidential Records Act Violations (.pdf)

Editor's note:This story was updated at 11:15 a.m. June 21, 2007. Please go to Corrections & Clarifications to see what has changed.

White House officials may have broken the law by using nongovernmental e-mail addresses for official communications that were not saved as official records, according to a report released by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The committee, led by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), is examining whether Bush administration officials violated the Presidential Records Act by using Republican National Committee (RNC) and Bush/Cheney ’04 campaign e-mail addresses for official communications.

But Tom Davis (R-Va.), ranking member on the committee, said that the report was premature and that Democrats had reached unsupported conclusions.

The act mandates that the executive branch “take all such steps as may be necessary to assure that the activities, deliberations, decisions and policies that reflect the performance of his constitutional, statutory or other official or ceremonial duties are adequately documented."

The interim report, which the committee released June 18, states that at least 88 White House officials had RNC accounts, a far greater number than the administration originally said. Dana Perino, deputy White House press secretary, first said a handful of officials had RNC accounts. That number was later amended to about 50.

Eleven officials were provided Bush/Cheney ’04 campaign accounts, but only six have been identified, the report adds. The campaign has thus far “unjustifiably refused” to provide the committee with basic information of these accounts, according to the report.

The RNC preserved e-mail messages for only 37 of the 88 administration officials who had RNC accounts, according to the congressional committee. A deposition from a former executive assistant to Karl Rove, President Bush’s deputy chief of staff, suggests that the RNC destroyed them.

But the RNC kept 140,000 e-mail messages Rove sent or received between January 2002 and April 2007. It also saved thousands of messages from other high-ranking administration officials, many of which went to federal e-mail addresses ending in .gov, suggesting they were used for official communication.

The findings also show that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, then White House counsel during the time in question, may have known that White House officials were using RNC e-mail accounts for official business but did not move to preserve them as records.

"This should be a matter of grave concern for anyone who values open government and the preservation of an accurate historical record of the decision-making process inside the White House,” Waxman said.

Davis said the report ignores the “good faith efforts of the Republican National Committee and the White House to provide information, briefings and documents” and that Gonzales was “dragged into this matter without any foundation whatsoever.”

“Everything about this report overreaches and prejudges,” Davis said.

RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said Waxman’s committee “jumped the gun and appears to be representing Democrats' partisan spin.” The RNC is working to recover e-mail messages, she added.

“Not only have we been clear that we are continuing our efforts to search for e-mails, but there is no basis for an assumption that any e-mail not already found would be of an official nature,” Schmitt added.

In a press briefing June 18, White House spokesman Tony Snow said the use of RNC e-mail was “based on the prior administration, which had done it the same way, in order to try to avoid Hatch Act violations.” The act prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan activity on federal property and during work hours.

The interim report states that during the next phase of the investigation, the congressional committee should scour federal agency records for White House e-mail messages that the RNC erased. Additionally, the committee should determine what Gonzales knew and when, and should secure cooperation from the Bush/Cheney ’04 campaign, the report states.

Eric Kuwana, campaign counsel to Bush-Cheney '04, said the campaign had communicated with the congressional committee in hopes of reaching an agreement on what, when and how information would be released.

Bush-Cheney '04's “documents and information are from a limited period of time years ago, have no articulated connection to the investigations of the committee and very well may be the type and nature of political documents that are specifically exempt from the Presidential Records Act,” Kuwana said.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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