EPA refuses to talk about think tank suit demanding docs on officials using 'secret' emails

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Photo - Administrator Lisa Jackson heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A Washington think tank has filed suit in federal court alleging that EPA officials use secret email accounts to skirt federal freedom of information disclosure requirements. (AP Photo)
Administrator Lisa Jackson heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A Washington think tank has filed suit in federal court alleging that EPA officials use secret email accounts to skirt federal freedom of information disclosure requirements. (AP Photo)
News,Mark Tapscott,Watchdog

Environmental Protection Agency officials are keeping mum today about a potential landmine of a lawsuit that claims senior executives there have used secret email accounts to conduct public business without being subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

The suit was filed last week by the Competitive Enterprise Institute's senior fellow, Christopher C. Horner, Hans Bader, CEI's counsel for special projects, and Sam Kazman, the conservative think tank's general counsel.

Ih the suit, CEI asks the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to order EPA to produce "certain records pertaining to 'secondary,' non-public email accounts for EPA administrators, the existence of which accounts Plaintiff discovered in an Agency document obtained under a previous FOIA request."

According to the CEI suit, the internal EPA memo, which was referenced in a Government Accountability Office report in 2008, described the secondary accounts as known only to "few EPA staff members, usually only high-level senior staff."

Many such officials would be either presidential appointees or politically appointed members of the federal civil service system's Senior Executive Service. The agency's current boss, Administrator Lisa Jackson, was appointed by President Obama.

Federal law requires all government employees to use only official email accounts. If they do use a private account to do official business, however, they are required to make that available to their employing department or agency.

A spokesman for EPA declined to comment specifically on the CEI suit, offering only a statement on behalf of the agency: "EPA is strongly committed to transparency and strictly complies with open government laws such as the Freedom of Information Act. We will review this lawsuit closely and respond as appropriate."

The think tank sued after filing three separate FOIA requests in May for documents related to the secret accounts. The agency has yet to produce any documents in response to the FOIAs, claiming it cannot do so until CEI provides assurance that it will pay any costs incurred in researching and reproducing relevant documents. The CEI suit points out that it can't provide such assurance since EPA has never given an estimate of the costs.

The existence of the secret email accounts is discussed at length in Horner's new book, which went on sale this week. It is entitled "The Liberal War on Transparency."

Horner charges in the book that former EPA Administrator Carol Browner originated the secret email accounts. He also claims there is widespread use of private email accounts by top federal officials to do public business that cannot be exposed via the FOIA.

Go here to read the full complaint from CEI.

Mark Tapscott is executive editor of The Washington Examiner.

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