Washington, D.C. Today, the Subcommittees on Oversight and Environment held a hearing to clarify when the Federal Records Act applies to certain information and how it has been implemented at the Environment Protection Agency (EPA). In particular, the hearing reviewed safeguards to prevent both the inadvertent as well as intentional destruction of information that should be preserved as a federal record.

Yesterday, following months of unfulfilled requests for information about EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy deleting thousands of text messages from her work phone, Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) authorized a subpoena. The subpoena compels the EPA to provide all documents related to the agency’s preservation of text messages and other electronic communications, as required by the Federal Records Act.

Chairman Smith: “What is clear is that this administration has failed to meet its promise of being the most transparent in American history.  We have seen a disregard for agency transparency several times in recent years across the Federal Government – such as with Lois Lerner’s ‘IRS targeting controversy’ and Hillary Clinton’s ‘secret server’ issue.  This pattern of withholding, concealing and destroying records must come to an end. Americans deserve to have the facts.”

Federal records are kept for a number of reasons, including institutional memory, ensuring effective and efficient administration of an organization, and to “make possible a proper scrutiny by the Congress…” Agencies are required to preserve records that document how decisions are made.

Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.): “Hardworking American taxpayers expect their government to operate in an ethical and transparent manner, especially agencies such as the EPA, who hold a tremendous amount of regulatory power. However, the deletion of four years’ worth of text messages causes great concern, and we must get to the bottom of why there is an obvious lack of accountability within the EPA. I commend Chairman Smith for using the committee’s subpoena power to compel the EPA to comply with our investigation, on behalf of the American people.”

Environment Subcommittee Chairman Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.): “The EPA seems to believe it should be able to operate without oversight.  Just last week, this Committee helped usher through the House two bills that would simply require greater transparency and more balanced and public input into EPA’s rulemaking processes.  Unfortunately, the President has threatened to veto both bills. EPA’s refusal to turn over records and documents is yet another example of the lack of accountability and transparency that has become a hallmark of this agency in its dealings with Congress.”

Today’s hearing follows other recent concerns surrounding the agency’s lack of transparency. On March 2, 2015, a federal court issued an opinion raising concerns about the agency’s process for responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. According to news reports, a federal judge called the EPA’s handling of a 2012 FOIA request “suspicious.”  The court found that “the agency either intentionally sought to evade the FOIA request in order to destroy documents or demonstrated extreme apathy and carelessness.”

Last year, a federal judge held the EPA in contempt for disregarding a court order not to destroy records. In that case, former EPA Administrator Carol Browner asked an employee to delete all her as well as other senior officials’ computer files as a new Administration was about to take over. Her excuse was that she wanted to have some “games” removed from her computer.

Not long after the contempt finding, reports surfaced that former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson created a secret email account under the pseudonym “Richard Windsor” in an apparent attempt to conceal emails. 

Further, a report by the Center for Effective Government, Making the Grade: Access to Information Scorecard, recently gave the EPA a “D” in information access.

For more information on today’s hearing, including witness testimony and a link to the archived webcast, visit the Science, Space, and Technology Committee website.