It turns out that Richard Windsor — the covert bureaucratic email alter ego of former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson — must have a lot of company in the most transparent administration in history. The Associated Press has been asking for the secret email accounts of political appointees in agencies including the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services. The AP story is “Emails of top Obama appointees remain a mystery.” The AP reports:
The scope of using the secret accounts across government remains a mystery: Most U.S. agencies have failed to turn over lists of political appointees’ email addresses, which the AP sought under the Freedom of Information Act more than three months ago. The Labor Department initially asked the AP to pay more than $1 million for its email addresses. [The Labor Department later retracted the demand.]
Agencies where the AP so far has identified secret addresses, including the Labor Department and HHS, said maintaining non-public email accounts allows senior officials to keep separate their internal messages with agency employees from emails they exchange with the public. They also said public and non-public accounts are always searched in response to official requests and the records are provided as necessary.
The AP couldn’t independently verify the practice. It searched hundreds of pages of government emails previously released under the open records law and found only one instance of a published email with a secret address: an email from Labor Department spokesman Carl Fillichio to 34 coworkers in 2010 was turned over to an advocacy group, Americans for Limited Government. It included as one recipient the non-public address for Seth D. Harris, currently the acting labor secretary, who maintains at least three separate email accounts.
The AP notes that 10 agencies have failed so far to turn over lists of email addresses as requested. Among the agencies the AP is waiting to hear back from are the EPA; the Pentagon; and the departments of Veterans Affairs, Transportation, Treasury, Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Homeland Security, Commerce and Agriculture. The AP drily comments: “All have said they are working on a response to the AP.” And adds: “White House spokesman Eric Schultz declined to comment.”
Kathleen Sebelius comes in for special attention:
The Health and Human Services Department initially turned over to the AP the email addresses for roughly 240 appointees — except none of the email accounts for Sebelius, even one for her already published on its website. After the AP objected, it turned over three of Sebelius’ email addresses, including a secret one. It asked the AP not to publish the address, which it said she used to conduct day-to-day business at the department. Most of the 240 political appointees at HHS appeared to be using only public government accounts.
The AP decided to publish the secret address for Sebelius — KGS2(at)hhs.gov — over the government’s objections because the secretary is a high-ranking civil servant who oversees not only major agencies like the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services but also the implementation of Obama’s signature health care law. Her public email address is Kathleen.Sebelius(at)hhs.gov.
At least two other senior HHS officials — including Donald Berwick, former head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and Gary Cohen, a deputy administrator in charge of implementing health insurance reform — also have secret government email addresses, according to the records obtained by the AP.
The whole story opens several issues deserving of further investigation and is worth reading in its entirety, but this point merits special attention:
In addition to the email addresses, the AP also sought records government-wide about decisions to create separate email accounts. But the FOIA director at HHS, Robert Eckert, said the agency couldn’t provide such emails without undergoing “an extensive and elongated department-wide search.” He also said there were “no mechanisms in place to determine if such requests for the creation of secondary email accounts were submitted by the approximately 242 political appointees within HHS.”
No word yet on whether Sebelius has been certified as “a scholar of ethical behavior,” like “Windsor.”