Federal investigators are investigating whether the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) illegally destroyed records of a 2017 meeting discussing new regulations against the fishing industry.
Officials at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) opened a probe on July 17, 2017, into allegations the NOAA deleted Skype and Google Chat conversations that transpired during the April 2017 meeting. NARA also gave NOAA one month to indicate how it planned to address the retention of the documents.
NOAA has not yet complied with NARA’s request, according to a March 30 report from Cause of Action Institute.
“Agencies must do a better job at keeping pace with evolving forms of technology,” CoA Institute legal counsel Ryan Mulvey wrote in a March 30 blog post. “Use of non-email methods of electronic communication — including text and instant messaging, as well as encrypted phone applications like Signal — has serious implications for federal records management.”
NARA opened the probe after agency officials read a July 6, 2017, article The Daily Caller News Foundation published detailing aspects of private messages discussing the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) meeting designed to hash out new rules foisted upon the country’s fishing industry. Cause of Action Institute filed a lawsuit in 2107 to obtain information on the nature of NOAA’s messaging habits.
The NOAA General Counsel considers communications through Google Chat to be off the record and will not be recorded anyway, according to a 2012 handbook guide CoA Institute obtained. The oversight group disputed the agency’s claim and pointed to provisions within the NARA allowing private messages to be obtained through a Freedom of Information request.
Any communications created on NOAA’s Gmail interface qualify under the Federal Records Act, NARA states. CoA Institute requested e-mails, instant messaging, Google Chat messages, text messages and any Skype messages NOAA employees sent during the April 18–20, 2017, NEFMC meetings.
CoA Institute has represented the fishing industry in the past. The group filed a lawsuit in 2016, claiming an NOAA rule required fishermen to pay the costs of on-board, at-sea monitors to ensure they are complying with regulations on the high seas. In effect, the rule made fishermen pay for on board babysitters. A district court dismissed the lawsuit.
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