According to an Associated Press report released today, some of President Obama's top political appointees have been using secret email addresses, and the Department of Labor tried to charge AP over $1 million for the information.
AP sought the details of the email addresses under a Freedom of Information Act request filed over three months ago following revelations last year that the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was using separate government email accounts. Most government agencies have failed to turn over the information, and the Labor Department initially even tried to charge AP for it.
Using secret government email addresses is one thing, and while you might not think it is a big deal, trying to charge a news organization over $1 million for information that you are required to release reeks of deliberate and unjustified obstruction and stalling.
Officials have said that using the secret government email addresses is necessary to prevent their inboxes from filling up with unwanted messages and to keep internal communications separate from emails exchanged with the public. AP, however, argues that the:
"secret email accounts complicate an agency’s legal responsibilities to find and turn over emails in response to congressional or internal investigations, civil lawsuits or public records requests because employees assigned to compile such responses would necessarily need to know about the accounts to search them. Secret accounts also drive perceptions that government officials are trying to hide actions or decisions."
So far 10 government agencies, including the EPA, the Pentagon; and the departments of Veterans Affairs, Transportation, Treasury, Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Homeland Security, Commerce and Agriculture, have yet to turn over the email addresses, making it hard to tell how widespread the practice of using secret government email addresses is. Some departments, including the Labor Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, have responded to AP's request and some officials were found to be using secret email addresses.
The Labor Department, however, initially tried to charge AP just over $1.03 million for the email addresses, saying, according to AP's report, that it "needed to pull 2,236 computer backup tapes from its archives and pay 50 people to pore over old records. Those costs included three weeks to identify tapes and ship them to a vendor, and pay each person $2,500 for nearly a month’s work." This was despite the Department's own FOIA guidelines explicitly saying that representatives of the news media are only charged for photocopying after the first 100 pages. The Department later admitted that the exorbitant bill was a mistake and provided AP with the information.
While it might not seem like a big deal, Keith Koffler of White House Dossier points out that "demanding such and exorbitant sum to drum up a few email addresses may amount to an effort to create a barrier to the release of information," yet another sign that highlights the emptiness of Obama's promise of more open and transparent government.