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 executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy, health IT and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mr. Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian started his career as an arts reporter and critic, and has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, Architect magazine, and other publications. He was an editorial assistant and staff writer at the now-defunct New York Press and arts editor at the online network in the 1990s, and was a weekly contributor of music and film reviews to the Washington Times from 2007 to 2014.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.

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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.

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