For years, as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson corresponded about work matters using an email account under the fake name “Richard Windsor.”
The Chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission Gary Gensler frequently conducted business using his personal email — as many as 11,000 emails related to his work passed through his private account.
Current and former Obama administration officials’ use of personal email addresses and secret, secondary email accounts to conduct official business came under scrutiny at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Tuesday.
Jackson, Gensler and other officials told the committee they never intended to evade federal records and transparency laws. The use of personal email to conduct official business is not prohibited by law. Similarly, the use of secondary email accounts — even those containing aliases — is not prohibited, and sometimes used by other agencies as well.
However, critics of the practice say it increases the risk that important communications will slip through the cracks. Or worse yet, be used to deliberately circumvent federal records laws.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the committee called it a “pervasive problem” that predates the Obama administration. “But it has not been corrected and, in fact, has proliferated,” he said.
Agencies gear up for 2016 digital deadline
The officials called to testify Tuesday pointed to challenges in managing electronic records — a lack of training about the use of personal email and the rapidly changing nature of digital communications.
The National Archives and Records Administration is working to correct that. Late last month, NARA issued a bulletin to agencies detailing a new automated system for managing email records. Under a previous NARA directive, agencies are expected to have digital recordkeeping systems in place by the end of 2016.
Archivist of the United States David Ferriero testified the new approach is already having an impact.
“In response to the directive, each agency designated a senior official to oversee and ensure compliance with records management statutes and regulations — not a records manager, a senior agency official with that responsibility,” Ferriero said.
Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) is also seeking to enshrine many of these practices into law. Both the Electronic Message Preservation Act and a series of amendments to the Presidential and Federal Records Act, which Cummings introduced, have been reported out of the oversight committee and await votes in the full House
In the meantime, the Obama administration officials told the committee that records generated via personal email were transmitted back to official email accounts where they could be captured for record-keeping purposes.
But Issa said many email records are still unaccounted for. “Only emails that have been found through ordinary efforts have been found,” he said. “But, very clearly, emails have been lost.”
‘It’s about time management and efficiency …’
Under fierce questioning from Republicans on the committee, Lisa Jackson, now vice president of environmental initiatives at Apple, maintained her use of a secret, secondary email account as EPA administrator was to ensure she could do her job more efficiently.
Her publicly available email receives more than 1 million emails every year, she said.
“Managing an inbox that big is more than one person can handle and still do their job effectively, to say the least,” she said. “That’s why many members of Congress as well as the executive branch set up a second account. It’s about time management and efficiency.”
Initially, she said, she suggested naming the second account “adminjackson” but because EPA’s email database was publicly searchable, career EPA employees recommended using an alias that resembled an actual name.
“My husband and sons were still living in East Windsor, N.J, and our family dog’s name is Ricky,” Jackson said. “So, with tongue in cheek, I named my account Windsor-dot-Richard-at-EPA-dot-gov.”
Jackson said the use of alias email accounts was also standard practice under her Republican predecessor. Further, the “Richard Windsor” account was considered an official account and subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, she added.
Neither federal law nor NARA guidance prohibit the use of secondary accounts, even those containing pseudonyms, according to Ferriero.
In fact, NARA issued a bulletin to agencies this week recognizing that some agencies may have a business need for multiple accounts.
“NARA recognizes that employees may have a business need for more than one agency-administered email account,” including the need for separate accounts for public and internal communication, the bulletin stated.
Ferriero said: “As far as NARA is concerned, we don’t care how many addresses you have, as long as those that are doing federal business are captured in a federal system, so that they’re available for future use.”
CFTC head: More training needed
Gensler, the head of the CFTC, came under fire earlier this year for using his personal email to conduct official work business, including to deal with the bankrupty of the derivatives firm MF Global in late 2010.
The CFTC inspector general reported in May that Gensler “used his personal email so much that he carried two smartphones, one issued by CFTC with his work email, and another for his personal email.”
“Having come to this job after years of not working in a traditional office setting and primarily being a single, stay-at-home dad, I was not attuned to the ways of accessing work email at home,” Gensler told the oversight committee in his prepared statement. “At the CFTC we didn’t have a robust training program — and I personally did not receive training — on either remote access or federal records.”
The CFTC IG said it didn’t find evidence of corrupt activities in Gensler’s use of his personal email and concluded he broke no laws.
Gensler told the IG he no longer uses personal email for official business.
To the committee, Gensler recommended enhanced employee training.
“I think training is critical, and I’ve directed our executive director and general counsel to update our training, both on onboarding employees and also the current staff,” he said.
Even as NARA has begun tackling digital recordkeeping, the proliferation of other online forms of communication — Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media as well as videoconferencing applications, such as Skype — could well be the next records-management challenge on the horizon.
That’s according to Andrew McLaughlin, senior vice president at Betaworks and the former deputy federal chief technology officer.
“As the technologies evolve rapidly, agency practices have to keep up,” McLaughlin said. He suggested agencies better train staff in proper electronic record-keeping practices. And when employees plan to leave their agencies, they should agree to go back through their private email accounts to make sure no relevant emails fall through the cracks.
“Regular administrative practices can make up for a lot of the technological gap that’s going to continue to exist,” he said.