The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Control, Alt, Delete

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


Control, Alt, Delete seems to be the standard M.O. for the Obama Administration when they want to extricate themselves from politically damaging, and possibly criminal, behavior.  Deleting emails, using alias emails, crashing or losing computers seem to be some of their favored tactics.*

Most informed citizens are well aware of Lois Lerner’s lost emails due to a crashed computer drive.  Ms. Lerner, as you will recall, was the former director of the Exempt Organizations Unit at the IRS and is in the center of a continuing congressional investigation into the agency’s targeting of conservative groups that had applied for tax-exempt status.  One May 7, 2014, the House of Representatives approved a contempt citation for Ms. Lerner for refusing to cooperate with Congress.

You may also recall that the IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform the agency had “lost” Lerner’s emails that were “to and from other IRS employees from a period of January 2009 - April 2011 due to a computer crash.”  Of course, this is the precise time period that Congress was investigating the IRS's targeting of conservative groups.  The commissioner was called before the Oversight committee June 23, 2014 to explain how the emails were lost and why it took so long for the IRS to inform Congress.

Now more emails have gone missing, this time within the Department of Health and Human Services.  On August 7, we learned emails belonging to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Marilyn Tavenner had been deleted.  The committee had subpoenaed the emails ten months ago as part of their investigation of the hugely flawed, $677 million HealthCare.gov website, the Obamacare federal exchange internet portal.

In a press release, Chairman Darrel Issa of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee was quoted:  “Today’s news that a senior HHS executive destroyed emails relevant to a congressional investigation means that the Obama Administration has lost or destroyed emails for more than 20 witnesses, and in each case, the loss wasn’t disclosed to the National Archives or Congress for months or years, in violation of federal law.  It defies logic that so many senior Administration officials were found to have ignored federal recordkeeping requirements only after Congress asked to see their emails.  Just this week, my staff followed up with HHS, who has failed to comply with a subpoena from ten months ago.  Even at that point, the administration did not inform us that there was a problem with Ms. Tavenner’s email history.  Yet again, we discover that this Administration will not be forthright with the American people unless cornered.”

These latest digital malfunctions and malfeasance is nothing new with the current administration.

Many will recall how former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson used a non-government email account with the name “Richard Windsor” to communicate with outside environmental activist groups.  She also used her alias email to communicate internally with EPA staff.

Ms. Jackson was not the only one to use an alias email.  So did Department of Justice Assistant Attorney Lanny Breuer during the gun-smuggling Operation Fast and Furious program, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez while he was an attorney within the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, and the aforementioned Lois Lerner.

It is believed these alias accounts were created to avoid Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests.

On Monday, August 11, the New York Post reported that 61 computers assigned to U.S. Census Bureau in Philadelphia went missing, just two months before the November 2012 presidential election.  Eleven of these computers were assigned to supervisors, which have the ability to manipulate the data that is collected.  The reporter, John Crudele, mentions that the unemployment rate and consumer price index had been manipulated in the Philadelphia office in the past and that sources have claimed falsification of data was occurring in other Census regions (there are six), including Philadelphia, around the time of President Obama’s re-election effort.

After reviewing emails from the Philadelphia Census office obtain through a FOIA request, Crudele believes there is evidence that “something was amiss at the agency, which releases information that is so important to the Federal Reserve, financial markets, corporations, and retirees, whose annual inflation adjustments are based on the work done by Census field reps.”

Crudele mentions that during the time of the missing computers, the Census was in the process of conducting the Household Survey, which produces the unemployment rate.  September’s 2012 results were significant when they were announced in October 2012.  As you may recall, the unemployment rate dropped an “improbable decline” from 8.1 percent to 7.8 percent.

According to Crudele, the Census Bureau has refused to release 600 emails between workers in the Philly office because they “didn’t fit with the purview” of his request.  The New York Post is appealing the decision.  No doubt, this episode will require more investigative work, either by the New York Post, Congress, or other entity.

Last week, 47 Inspectors General sent a rare joint letter to the oversight committees in Congress complaining about their ability to get access to government records, particularly within the Justice Department, the EPA, and the Peace Corps.  They wrote:

We have learned that the Inspectors General for the Peace Corps, the Environmental Protection Agency (in his role as Inspector General for the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board) and the Department of Justice have recently faced restrictions on their access to certain records available to their agencies that were needed to perform their oversight work in critical areas. In each of these instances, we understand that lawyers in these agencies construed other statutes and law applicable to privilege in a manner that would override the express authorization contained in the IG Act.  These restrictive readings of the IG Act represent potentially serious challenges to the authority of every Inspector General and our ability to conduct our work thoroughly, independently, and in a timely manner.”

The Chairmen and Ranking Members of the House and Senate oversight committees in turn sent a letter to White House's Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan.  Expressing their alarm about the numerous roadblocks the IGs are facing in getting access to documents, they stated:

We write to express our grave concern about difficulties that certain Inspectors General (IG) have encountered in trying to obtain documents from their respective agencies. Timely and complete access to information is essential if Inspectors General are to perform their missions, and their rights to information are clearly provided for in the Inspector General Act of 1978.  We call on you to underscore this important fact and enlist your office to help ensure that agencies comply… This is not the first we have heard of these problems.  Our offices have already spent time working with the affected IGs in an effort to try and help them gain the needed information.  Indeed, Chairman Issa and Ranking Member Cummings examined some of these concerns during hearings before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform this year.”

They close by saying:

We trust that you share our commitment to the mission and effectiveness of the Inspectors General, and ask that you take affirmative steps to ensure that all agencies and their staffs are properly informed and trained on the requirements of the Inspectors General Act so that IGs receive the information they need to do their jobs.”

Unfortunately, it has become too clear that many officials in the Obama Administration do not share a commitment to allow investigators to do their jobs.  Let us hope the OMB Director follows through.

*ADDENDUM

One hour after this blog was posted, The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, reported that House Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee have accused CMS Director Marilyn Tavenner of telling staff to delete emails regarding the ObamaCare rollout.  The Hill writes,

House Republicans on Friday accused a top Obama administration health official of telling staff to delete an email related to the healthcare law’s rollout last fall.

In a letter to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Administrator Marilyn Tavenner, the Republicans point to an Oct. 5 email from Tavenner to staff about how to handle calls from people applying for ObamaCare.

In the first line of the email, Tavenner writes 'please delete this email but see if we can work on call script.'

Republicans in their letter ask why Tavenner wanted the email deleted, and whether she has asked for other emails to be deleted.

'This contradicts ... [the claim] that your practice was to instruct subordinates to retain copies of e-mails,' said the lawmakers, including House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy (R-Pa.).

Asked for comment, the CMS did not answer why Tavenner requested the email to be deleted."

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