When Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt heads to Capitol Hill on Thursday, he’s prepared for lawmakers to grill him over his use of multiple email accounts.
Pruitt’s staff prepared him with responses on two dozen subjects surrounding alleged overspending and ethics violations, including “whether he improperly maintained a secret email address, ‘firstname.lastname@example.org,'” The New York Times reported Wednesday.
EPA’s inspector general launched an investigation into Pruitt’s email at the urging of Democratic lawmakers in April. Pruitt used four email accounts — one of which is no longer in use — according to EPA. The big question Pruitt faces is whether all his government accounts searched in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.
However, Pruitt’s use of non-public emails is already being compared to former Obama EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s creating a fake identity for her non-public email, in what was seen as an attempt to circumvent transparency laws.
Pruitt’s emails “evokes memories” of Jackson’s alias email account, Bloomberg News suggested. Democrats’ letter over Pruitt’s emails “echoes a controversy in 2012,” The New York Times previously reported, referring to Jackson’s alias email.
While it’s right to be concerned about government officials’ email practices, Pruitt’s four emails to Jackson’s alias account are completely different situations.
In 2012, Jackson was using an email under the pseudonym “Richard Windsor,” The Daily Caller News Foundation revealed. Jackson’s fake identity was discovered by Competitive Enterprise senior fellow Chris Horner while researching his book, “The Liberal War On Transparency.”
Pruitt’s emails, on the other hand, are variants of his name or his home state, Oklahoma. Pruitt did not create a false identity to conduct agency business, while Jackson did.
Republican lawmakers and government watchdog groups worried Jackson’s false identity was being used to skirt transparency laws. What other reason is there to use a totally different name? Lawmakers and EPA’s IG were quick to investigate. Jackson was following a practice set by previous administrators by using a non-public email for internal communications, EPA said in 2012. EPA has said the same for Pruitt.
“The EPA maintains three email accounts which are attributed to Administrator Pruitt: two are used by staff for calendaring and public correspondence; the third is used by the Administrator,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox told The Washington Post on April 12.
“A fourth email account was created for use by the Administrator but was superseded and never used beyond three test emails,” Wilcox told The Post, which first reported of Pruitt’s multiple emails. “When we receive a FOIA request, all accounts are searched before we respond to the FOIA request.”
Indeed, EPA administrators since the Clinton administration had operated two email accounts — one for the public and another for internal use. EPA administrators’ public accounts get flooded with millions of emails, so an internal one was needed to avoid the clutter.
Makes sense, but Jackson did something none of her predecessors had done — she created a false identity. Jackson arrived at the name “Richard Windsor” by combining the name of her dog with the New Jersey town she grew up in.
Richard Windsor’s identity went beyond just an email. In fact, EPA honored the fake employee with distinctions and certificates, including a “scholar of ethical behavior” award.
Jackson resigned as EPA head in early 2013 and later told Princeton University students, “I have endless times when I’ve said to people, ‘Make sure when you’re searching for FOIA information, you search the Richard Windsor account.'”
Except Chris Horner, a regular records requester, was never told that. Neither was the Center for Progressive Reform, which released emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act in 2012 — including those involving Jackson’s alias.
“We found no indication the Richard Windsor account was being searched for FOIA requests before we sued. I suspect there was no Post-it note in the FOIA office saying ‘Richard Windsor = Lisa Jackson,'” Horner told E&E News.
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