Obama White House cavalier toward technology policies aimed at preventing abuses of Presidential Records Act

Jonathan Strong Jonathan Strong, 27, is a reporter for the Daily Caller covering Congress. Previously, he was a reporter for Inside EPA where he wrote about environmental regulation in great detail, and before that a staffer for Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA). Strong graduated from Wheaton College (IL) with a degree in political science in 2006. He is a huge fan of and season ticket holder to the Washington Capitals hockey team. Strong and his wife reside in Arlington.
Font Size:

When the administration slapped the wrist of one of its top technology officials this spring for violating Barack Obama’s ethics pledge, a spokesman claimed the breaches were isolated incidents.

But a Daily Caller investigation reveals a cavalier attitude at the Obama White House toward longstanding safeguards designed to prevent abuses of the Presidential Records Act and other laws – including acts that carry serious legal implications.

Two sources say a top White House technology official, Chief Information Officer Brook Colangelo, routinely asked technology vendors for special deals based on his position as a public official.

“I heard the CIO talking to various technology vendors, saying … like, ‘You should give this to us for free because we’re the White House.’ And he actually said that to people,” one source said. A second source said Colangelo continued the practice even after having been confronted about its appropriateness.

Asking for discounts as a White House political official violates ethical rules and potentially federal law, experts say.

“You’re asking me a hypothetical because I’m not endorsing any facts here,” said Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Bill Clinton, but “I can’t imagine a circumstance where a public official based on the fact that the person is a public official who asks a commercial business for a discount, I can’t imagine how that’s ethical under ethical rules in the White House that I know of, and it might even be worse.”

A White House official responded to Daily Caller questions on the matter by saying, “The Office of Administration … does not ask for special treatment or deals from vendors.”

Much of the information obtained by The Daily Caller comes from the first few months of the administration, when the technologically savvy culture of the Obama campaign collided with the restrictive rules of the White House.

Then, Obama officials complained openly about their frustration with what they called archaic technology in the White House. But many of the constraints — personal e-mail websites like Gmail and Yahoo! Mail are blocked from access, for instance – were put in place during past administrations to follow federal law.

Specifically, the Presidential Records Act requires the White House to archive most written communications. The intent of the law, enacted in the wake of the Nixon Watergate scandal, was two-fold: to preserve the documents for historians and record potential ethical and legal violations.

E-mails sent from official White House accounts are preserved. But those sent from a personal account would bypass the system – in violation of the law, depending on the circumstances.

A source who worked in the White House for about the first six months of the administration said Obama’s new political appointees disdained safeguards aimed to ensure compliance with the law.

“A lot of new people came in [and] they were very hostile towards the career employees. Basically, you know, whenever they made a technical decision, maybe something related to some of the safeguards we had in place for presidential records, as an example, well somebody who was career might say, ‘This is sort of how we’ve been doing things,’ and the political would say, ‘Well, new game in town,’ sort of thing,” the source said.

Quickly, the conflict came to a head. When the White House e-mail servers went down in late January and early February 2009, which insiders say was due to a short-sighted decision by political appointees to install new technology without testing, Colangelo and others became angry.

“The CIO told me to my face that ‘I think [career employees] did it on purpose.’ As an act of political sabotage. That was a clear example – red line – the CIO, a political appointee, accusing career civil servants and contractors, even, of political motivation for something which was an accident. And people got fired because of that.”

Specifically, two I.T. contractors were fired, Tim Brockey and Juan Sargeant. A second White House source confirmed the account.

Reached by phone, Brockey declined to comment. “What I want to know is who’s telling you all this stuff,” he said. Sargeant did not return a phone message left for him. The White House official did not address this issue in her response.

In addition to Brockey and Sargeant, numerous other civil servants either resigned — many because they were given bad hours or otherwise made to feel unwelcome — or were moved to outside agencies.

“As the new people came in at least 10 civil servants resigned. And contractors were fired,” the first source said.

Although the firings and Colangelo’s expectation of special deals from technology vendors took place at the beginning of the administration, the Obama White House appears to have set the tone on the issue early on.

For instance, e-mails recently released by the White House show Andrew McLaughlin — a former Google lobbyist and now deputy chief technology official for the administration — e-mailing his former employer from his personal gmail account on policy matters.

On one occasion, a lobbyist for Google asked McLaughlin and Susan Crawford, then a telecommunications advisor in the National Economic Council, for a meeting on the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Internet privacy policy. McLaughlin and Crawford worked with Becky Burr, the lobbyist, to set up a meeting time.

The FTC is an independent agency supposedly immune from White House meddling. While it’s unknown what was said at the meeting, Burr’s request for the meeting noted the “worrisome implications” of stricter privacy controls on innovation and said “it seems important for the FTC to have administration input on this.”

The issue is especially concerning to privacy activists like Consumer Watchdog who fault Google for its privacy policies.

In other instances, McLaughlin coordinated public relations strategy with Google employees.

The White House formally reprimanded McLaughlin on May 18 for breaking the president’s ethics pledge taken by his appointees not to discuss policies they lobbied on with previous employers — as well as “inadvertently” bypassing his official e-mail account — and the legally required archiving.

Consumer Watchdog’s John Simpson said McLaughlin should resign. “McLaughlin received a mild slap on the wrist. With his background as Google’s lobbyist he is simply the wrong man for this job.”

The e-mails have also drawn the ire of Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, top GOP oversight official and Obama’s chief congressional tormentor.

The e-mails “[beg] the question who does McLaughlin work for, the United States or Google,” Issa said in a June 9 e-mail to White House counsel Bob Bauer. Issa’s letter demands further information from the White House including whether McLaughlin is bypassing his official e-mail account on other matters.

On that front, besides the content of the e-mails, McLaughlin sent numerous e-mails from his personal e-mail account during work hours. A second White House official said neither McLaughlin nor any White House employee has ongoing access to Gmail or other personal e-mail websites from their work computers.

Instead, “Andrew has access to Gmail via his personal handheld device,” the second White House official said.

The source who worked in the White House for approximately the first six months of the administration said the use of personal iPhones, Blackberries and other smart phones is ubiquitous in the White House.

“A lot of the political staff have two Blackberries. One that’s issued by the government and then their other Blackberry. Which they’re using their personal Blackberry while they’re in the office to talk to other people, probably about official business,” the source said.

Are they using their iPhones for official business? “You would think so,” the source said. An “example would be somebody in the political staff texts their counterpart over at the [Democratic National Committee (DNC)] and says, ‘Hey what should we do about this?’ and the person at the DNC says, ‘Well, here’s what we’re doing.’ That’s, obviously, the worst case scenario where you’ve got the actual sort of political collusion which is strictly prohibited by the Hatch Act and then also the violation of the records act at the same time.

“I can say with pretty good certainty that that sort of thing does happen. And that’s exactly what got people started in the Bush administration was that same kind of thing going on between the RNC and the White House,” the source said.

The first White House official said, “The White House takes its [Presidential Records Act] obligations very seriously and the White House counsel’s office regularly briefs staff on their obligations under the [Presidential Records Act], as well as other applicable laws.”

To be clear, the second White House source confirmed only that Colangelo was seeking special deals from vendors and that the two contractors were fired after accusations of political sabotage.

And, on the issue of Colangelo seeking special deals, the first White House official offered a longer, carefully worded defense that denies that practice takes place inside the White House.

Given nearly a week to respond, the official said, “The Office of Administration follows all federal procurement laws in dealing with vendors. As was the case here, it considers only performance when dealing with vendors. The office does not ask for special treatment or deals from vendors; it does work with them to ensure that they can meet the unique and particular technological specifications that are sometimes necessary given the work of the White House.”

The statement is clear that it is not White House policy to ask for special deals. However, it does not directly address Colangelo’s conduct except in the sentence asserting that the White House “considers only performance when dealing with vendors,” by noting that policy was in effect in “the case here.” The Daily Caller did not inquire whether the White House considers purchasing from vendors for reasons other than their performance.