EPA Employees Not ‘Intentionally’ Breaking Law By Deleting Official Texts, IG Claims

Kathryn Watson | Reporter

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials only archived 86 text messages out of 3.1 million agency employees sent and received in 2015, according to a federal watchdog’s report made public Wednesday by House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith.

The EPA Office of Inspector General (IG) released the report requested by the Texas Republican, which described enormous text message retention problems within the EPA. One unnamed senior official configured his phone to automatically delete texts after 30 days.

The IG claimed EPA officials never “intentionally” violated the Federal Records Act and did not include the low number of archived texts in the body of its report, relaying it instead to congressional staff.

Multiple federal laws and regulations require that officials preserve all documents — including email and text messages — created in the course of conducting official business of the U.S. government.

“I applaud the inspector general at EPA for recognizing that there is a problem with EPA officials using texting for official business and the conflict it presents for maintaining records,” Smith said in a statement. “Out of the 3.1 million text messages analyzed by the IG, only 86 of the text messages were logged into the enterprise system at EPA as a federal record.

“This vast deficit is astonishing, and further discredits the claim made by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy that only one out of her 5,000 text messages was an official record according to EPA.

“A better process for maintaining this type of official correspondence to provide for congressional requests and Freedom of Information Act practices is lacking and needs to be addressed. I look forward to hearing how EPA specifically plans to address the deficits outlined by the IG report,” Smith said.

Smith requested the IG report in November 2014 after learning high-ranking EPA officials, including EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, may have deleted texts to hide official business.

IG spokesman Jeffrey Lagda said the 80-something figure given to congressional staff in a conference call was a rough number. He said he wasn’t sure why the figure did not appear in the report.

The anonymous senior official who configured his phone to delete texts may have deleted vital information, the IG found.

“The senior official responded that he did not have any text messages on the device for that (three-month) period,” IG auditor Teresa Richardson said in a podcast. “The device had been set to automatically delete text messages every 30 days. So it is likely that any text messages that were substantive and should have been preserved were deleted.”

The report found another senior official claimed to have zero texts, despite EPA’s quarterly mobile device usage report showing frequent texts from that person. Another official, a regional administrator, potentially lost federal records by failing to transfer or otherwise preserve texts after replacing an old phone.

The report also found EPA employees can change the retention settings on their phones to delete texts — like the unnamed senior official did — and on Apple phones, the EPA can’t lock down the retention setting. (RELATED: EPA Execs Rely On Private Email To Talk With Lobbyists)

But those instances resulted in no intentional violation of federal law, the IG said.

“We did not find instances where the EPA used text messaging to intentionally circumvent the Federal Records Act,” the report said.

EPA officials were unaware of disciplining any employees for failing to maintain texts in recent years.

The IG recommended that the EPA’s Office of Environmental Information remind agency employees that text messages are generally responsive to FOIA and congressional requests, and determine whether senior officials lost any preservation-worthy text messages. The EPA agreed to investigate the case in which the senior official configured his phone to delete texts after 30 days.

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