Republican lawmakers are demanding the Environmental Protection Agency fork over documents relating to text messages to and from the agency’s chief administrator that were allegedly deleted rather than preserved for federal records.
“It was brought to my attention last fall that you, and potentially others at the [EPA], may have deleted thousands of text messages, including those that would qualify as federal records, from government-issued electronic devices,” Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith wrote in a Jan. 27 letter to EPA chief Gina McCarthy.
“As the head of a United States agency under an Administration that promises an ‘unprecedented level of openness in government,’ it is imperative to know that you follow your agency’s policies and procedures, and that existing policies and procedures are adequate for proper accountability,” wrote Smith, who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
In October 2014, the Justice Department admitted in court that the EPA “misplaced” text messages from McCarthy’s and other top officials’ government-issued phones. Republicans argue the agency is violating its own record-keeping guidelines. EPA texts were being sought by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank. CEI sued the EPA for texts from the phones of McCarthy and former administrator Lisa Jackson.
“Defendant has decided to formally notify the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) about the potential loss of federal records relating to text messages,” DOJ lawyers admitted last fall.
A federal judge ruled that it’s “implausible that EPA Administrators would not have suspected the destruction of any federal records with the removal of over 5,000 Agency text messages” and granted CEI an injunction against the agency — meaning the EPA would have to notify the National Archives it may have destroyed federal records.
News that EPA “misplaced” 5,000 text messages came after McCarthy told lawmakers earlier that year she was having trouble accessing her text messages because of a hardware malfunction.
Even so, the EPA argued last fall that it had no legal obligation to preserve officials’ text messages because they were personal and not related to federal business — even though they were on government-issued devices. The agency also maintained it had no knowledge of any text messages being deleted.
“EPA is not aware of any evidence that federal records have been unlawfully destroyed,” the agency said. “EPA reviewed information available to it, including information related to the Agency’s upgrade to Microsoft Office 365 that impacted Agency-issued mobile devices.”
According to Smith, the EPA inspector general is now investigating the matter. But Republican lawmakers want to engage in their own fact-finding mission to see why the agency deleted so many messages.
“I am interested in continuing Congressional oversight of this important matter while we wait for the final [inspector general] report to be issued later this year,” Smith wrote. “Both EPA’s actions, which required [National Archives and Records Administration] notification, and its official quote in response, indicate a troubling disregard by EPA of its own guidelines.”
The lawmakers gave the agency until Feb. 13 to respond to their inquiries. The EPA is remaining tight-lipped for now about the requests, other than to acknowledge receipt of the letter and again deny any breach of communications protocol.
“[The agency] will be reviewing the specific questions posed by the Committee,” an EPA spokeswoman told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “However, it is important to point out that EPA reviewed information about the Agency’s policies, practices, and procedures with respect to retention of text messages that qualify as federal records, and we are not aware of any evidence that federal records have been unlawfully destroyed. Out of an abundance of caution, we informed NARA of this information and what we reviewed.”
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