Ethics watchdog accuses Education Department of illegal e-mail use
A liberal government watchdog group has accused employees in the U.S. Department of Education of illegally using private e-mail accounts to conduct official government business, eliminating the ability for independent oversight through public records access.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington asked the department's inspector general to investigate the use of non-governmental e-mail accounts after it was denied access to e-mails it requested under the Freedom of Information Act. CREW's lawyer was told that department personnel "often use private e-mail addresses," which are not subject to public records requests, according to a press release from the group.
Such use of private e-mail accounts, if the correspondence is not stored by the department, would be in violation of the Federal Records Act, CREW said, although the scope of private e-mail use and the number of employees potentially involved is unclear. The group filed a public records request in March seeking information on the Education Department's Reading First program, according to the release.
A CREW spokesperson told RAW STORY that the organization has "no idea" how many private messages were exchanged among department personnel, because the department was unable to fully comply with their request. The spokesperson said a FOIA official in the department volunteered to CREW the fact that private accounts were used, and a lawyer in the department's office of general counsel confirmed their existance.
CREW requested copies of all correspondence beween the department, the White House and edcational publishers related to the reading program.
"Last month, the American public learned that the White House was violating the Presidential Records Act," CREW's executive director, Melanie Sloan, said in the release.
Sloan was referring to a controversy involving White House political director Karl Rove and other top aides allegedly using e-mail addresses supplied by the Republican National Committee to conduct government business. Congressional investigators have requested copies of the RNC e-mails but the e-mails have not yet been turned over.
"Now we've learned that Department of Education has been violating the Federal Records Act. How many other agencies are knowingly violating federal law?" Sloan continued, "Complying with the law is not optional. One would think that those in charge of the government would understand this, but apparently not."