Bolstered by the backing of key watchdog groups, top GOP oversight official Rep. Darrell Issa is pressing House oversight committee Chairman Edolphus Towns to help investigate a mounting number of technology-related ethics problems for a White House that has prided itself on both transparency and its technological savvy.
Issa’s latest move is a June 30 letter to Towns requesting the chairman join Issa in “launching a formal investigation” into numerous allegations the Obama White House has played fast and loose with its ethics rules and disclosure requirements under federal law.
The letter comes two days after Washington-based watchdog group Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility (CREW) made the same request to Towns.
At issue most recently are hundreds of meetings at a Caribou Coffee close to the White House between high-ranking administration officials and top K-Street lobbyists. The meetings were reported by the New York Times on June 24.
In his letter, Issa cited the Times story and said “not only are administration officials intentionally circumventing [federal law] by using private e-mail accounts, but the White House staff are also skirting the president’s own transparency initiatives, such as the online publication of White House visitor logs, by holding meetings with lobbyists outside of the White House to avoid creating records of the meetings.”
The Times reported that the coffee-house lobbyist meetings were often initiated with e-mails from White House aides’ personal e-mail accounts – bypassing an archiving system – and appear geared towards hiding the meetings from disclosing them in a published list of visitors to the White House.
At issue legally is whether administration officials are conducting “official business” outside of record-keeping requirements in federal law. At issue ethically is an apparent attempt to hide from disclosure hundreds of lobbyist contacts by a White House which pledged to be the most transparent in history.
The letter also prods Towns by noting his Democratic colleague Rep. Henry Waxman, California Democrat, when he was oversight chairman, made similar e-mail-related ethics problems a personal mission.
“During the last Congress, this committee, under the leadership of former Chairman Henry A. Waxman, conducted vigorous oversight of the White House’s compliance with the” Presidential Records Act, Issa said.
The lobbyist meetings join a growing list of technology-related ethics problems for the Obama administration.
While CREW and Issa are eager to get to the bottom of the problems, Towns appears less anxious.
Towns abruptly canceled a hearing scheduled for June 24 likely to be a showdown between the White House and Issa – Obama’s chief congressional tormentor. A spokesman for Towns cited a “scheduling conflict” as reason for the postponement.
Towns’s office did not return a call for comment.
In addition to the lobbyist meetings, the White House officially reprimanded one of its top technology officials, Andrew McLaughlin, in May for violating the president’s ethics pledge in communicating with his former employer and “inadvertently” bypassing e-mail archiving requirements.
While a spokesman claimed the breaches were isolated incidents a Daily Caller investigation revealed a cavalier attitude at the Obama White House toward longstanding safeguards designed to prevent abuses of the Presidential Records Act and other laws.
White House sources described a clash when Obama took the White House between a technology-savvy campaign culture and strict rules in the White House designed to protect the Presidential Records Act and other laws.
“A lot of new people came in [and] they were very hostile towards the career employees,” a White House source told TheDC. “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.”
Additionally, two sources said 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.
Inside the White House, the use of personal iPhones and Blackberries is ubiquitous. Those personal phones could be used for legitimately private purposes such as letting a spouse know when one is coming home.
But evidence is mounting that top White House officials have been using their phones as a convenient way to e-mail lobbyists and others about policy issues – e-mails that should be preserved for the historical record under the Presidential Records Act and Federal Records Act.
The problems are compounded by the claims on ethics and transparency Obama has made. As CREW noted in its letter to Towns, “Upon entering office, President Obama promised an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability in his administration.”
While Towns is not taking aggressive action to investigate the issues, Issa would if Republicans win the House. The ethics problems could come to haunt the Obama White House in a new way if Issa obtains subpoena power.