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New book claims officials use private emails to skirt FOIA laws; most departments fail Bloomberg transparency test

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News,Mark Tapscott,Watchdog

Christopher C. Horner is a happy warrior attorney and senior fellow at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute who is on the verge of dropping a bomb on the national political scene.

The bomb is a book that hits bookstores Tuesday bearing the title "The Liberal War on Transparency." Publisher is Threshold Editions from Simon & Schuster, which is part of the CBS Corp.

Political appointees at another federal agency who found a clever way to not only use private email accounts but to rig the system automatically to remove all traces of them from government servers.

Horner's book is every bit as provocative as the title sounds. Among his major claims are these, as described in a news release from his publisher and from my own reading of an advance copy:

* While working as deputy White House chief of staff, President Obama's current campaign manager, Jim Messina, used his AOL account to orchestrate the controversial deal by which drug companies lobbied for and ran ads supporting passage of Obamacare, which was just one example in a government-wide trend.

* key political appointees at the U.S. Department of Energy working on the controversial clean energy loan program made infamous by the Solyndra debacle routinely conducted official government business using private email accounts in an attempt to shield their communication from public exposure via the Freedom of Information Act.

* Political appointees at another federal agency who found a clever way to not only use private email accounts but to rig the system automatically to remove all traces of them from government servers.

* The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency created secret email accounts that few there knew about and no one apparently can now access, according to an internal document, thus calling into question EPA's compliance with certain laws and lawsuits.

* The Obama administration's use of industry lobbyists as "cut-outs," or go-betweens, to avoid direct written contact with groups who are certain to be subject of Freedom of Information Act requests, including the George Soros-funded left-wing activist group, the Center for American Progress.

* Other tricks include using "handles" or code names for political appointees who are likely to be the subject of taxpayer requests, and installing political commissars to oversee what information the public can see.

Horner is very much an advocate of the Right and thus concentrates his fire on targets on the Left, especially among those serving in the current administration in the White House and those who were in the previous Democratic administration during the Clinton years.

But the significance of the Horner book goes far beyond ideological disputes to focus attention on a fundamental issue that ought to grab the attention of everybody regardless of their politics who genuinely cares about insuring the kind of transparency that makes government accountable: Have the nation's laws, especially the Freedom of Information Act of 1966 and the Electronic Freedom of Information Act of 1996, fallen so far behind the pace of technological progress that they risk being irrelevant if they are not extensively updated as soon as possible?

These are disturbing revelations and Horner's book is certain to be attacked as nothing more than an ideologically partisan attack designed to damage Obama's re-election campaign.

But regardless of the outcome of the election, the issues raised by Horner aren't going away. He is in court on multiple cases sparked by his work in these areas, and he's uncovered more than enough documents to keep the pressure on the national news media, Congress and whoever occupies the White House for the next four years to take notice.

Coincidentally, Bloomberg announced today that its test of FOIA responsiveness at 20 top federal departments and agencies produced failing grades for all but one of them:

"Nineteen of 20 cabinet-level agencies disobeyed the law requiring the disclosure of public information: The cost of travel by top officials. In all, just eight of the 57 federal agencies met Bloomberg’s request for those documents within the 20-day window required by the Act," report Bloomberg's Jim Snyder and Danielle Ivory.

“'When it comes to implementation of Obama’s wonderful transparency policy goals, especially FOIA policy in particular, there has been far more talk the talk rather than walk the walk,' said Daniel Metcalfe, director of the Department of Justice’s office monitoring the government’s compliance with FOIA requests from 1981 to 2007."

For more from Bloomberg, go here.

Mark Tapscott is executive editor of The Washington Examiner.

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Mark Tapscott

Executive Editor
The Washington Examiner