Two top government watchdogs in Washington D.C. slammed a key aide to Secretary of State John Kerry for using a private Gmail account to conduct official government business, calling it “the worst possible practice in trying to maintain transparency” and speculating whether this was “how the Benghazi talking points were developed.”
The Daily Caller reported on Monday that Glen Johnson, a strategic communications advisor to Kerry, fabricated a claim about the number of times Kerry appeared on “Fox News Sunday” while attempting to force TheDC to change a report which said that the secretary had “shut out” Fox News reporter Chris Wallace from interviews.
Johnson used his personal Gmail account to contact TheDC, though he did also forward the initial email to his government address. As deputy assistant secretary of public affairs, corresponding with journalists counts as Johnson’s official government business. Johnson also signed the first email with his official title.
The State Department official did not appear to carbon copy his government address in a subsequent email to TheDC apologizing for the claims in his original message.
Tom Fitton, president of the conservative government watchdog Judicial Watch, insists that it’s important for federal employees to use official communication channels — especially if they’re high-ranking or in positions of public interest.
“Records retention policies could be compromised by the use of private email,” he said, referencing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) rules giving citizens the right to check up on their government by requesting official documents. “There are a variety of ways that federal records laws could be compromised through the use of private emails to conduct public business.”
Chris Horner, a D.C.-area lawyer and senior fellow at the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute, agreed. “It certainly does make it harder to get legally-owed records,” he noted, claiming that, “As a practical matter [a private email] avoids the law, given that it is left to the employee — who made this choice in the first place — to volunteer the email.”
He claimed the sole use of a private email account violates the Federal Records Act and may run afoul of criminal code 18 USC 2071, prohibiting the willful concealment of documents filed or deposited in any public office.
“That alarm went off as soon as I read [TheDC’s] story,” said Fitton. He stressed that he couldn’t speculate on Johnson’s specific case, but noted that in his experience, “when public officials use private email accounts to conduct government business, it’s not accidental.”
To Horner, the fact that Johnson openly “cc’d” the first email while not openly “cc’ing” the second “in a vacuum . . . indicates he didn’t want [it] to be seen by others or [put it] at risk of being seen . . . On its face inadvertence seems less likely given the circumstance.”
Horner and Fitton agreed that Johnson’s use of a private account is the latest example of a burgeoning trend in Washington, exemplified by former EPA head Lisa Jackson’s use of a secret personal email and White House staffers purposefully utilizing private accounts to speak to lobbyists and coordinate strategy.
“Using unofficial accounts to conduct select official business is standard practice among the Obama administration,” said Horner, calling it a “new phenomenon” that was not permitted in prior administrations.
“We gotta get a handle on this, government-wide,” Fitton concurred. “And this administration, when it comes to document production, they think they’re above the law.”
“When you see a top public official in the State Department use private email to conduct government business, all sorts of alarm bells go off,” he explained. “It’s the worst possible practice in trying to maintain transparency and accounting ability because private email accounts — unless you know they’re being used, its very hard to rely on FOIA officers to do the right thing.”
Fitton — whose organization is pursuing multiple federal lawsuits to obtain State Department documents on its potentially-politicized response to the 2012 Benghazi attacks — saw serious implications for that effort in Johnson’s email.
“Is this how the Benghazi talking points were developed?” he asked. “Is this how [State’s] PR operation works, through private email accounts? If this is a common practice in PR at the Department of State — if it is, then whoever’s working on Benghazi needs to broaden their search.”
“Certainly we will take note of it, because we’re at court already on this issue,” he said. “But I would think the [House] Select Committee [on Benghazi] will want to take note of this as well.”
Johnson has still not responded to questions regarding the use of his Gmail account. The State Department did not reply to a request for its official policy on the employee use of private email accounts.