At the request of a Congressional committee, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on January 15 said it will undertake an audit of the agency’s processes for preserving text message records. The OIG is an independent office within EPA whose purpose is to help the agency protect the environment in a more efficient and cost-effective manner.
The EPA has been under criticism from conservative groups and members of Congress over alleged attempts to evade federal recordkeeping laws by using text messages to circumvent the Federal Records Act in order to advance the current administration’s regulations on climate change.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a think tank based in Washington, D.C., filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in September 2014 seeking text messaging records from senior EPA officials. In its brief, the CEI contends it submitted two requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for text messages that contain substantive agency communications, but the agency argued that such messages were not “records” the agency was required to retain under the Federal Records Act.
“Through our open-records requests, CEI discovered that EPA administrator Gina McCarthy not only lost thousands of text messages used to conduct official government business, but that she admitted to knowingly deleting all of them, each one,” said CEI senior fellow Chris Horner, in an October 24, 2014 press release. “Now we’re trying to put a stop to the EPA’s illegal cyber bonfire and force the agency to notify the archivist so we can attempt to recover some of the destroyed records.”
In November, Rep. Lamar Smith, Chairman of the House Science Committee, wrote to the EPA’s OIG requesting a review of the agency’s policies relative to the preservation of text messages.
“My concerns over the potential loss of federal records is compounded by the fact that Administrator McCarthy is not the first senior-level administration employee to face questions about lost or deleted federal records,” he wrote, referencing recent records management controversies at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Internal Revenue Service.
According to the OIG’s memorandum announcing the audit, the objective of the review will be “to determine whether the EPA adhered to applicable laws, regulations, and agency policies and procedures for records management, and preserved text messages when conducting official business.”
The audit will focus on whether the EPA implemented policies to preserve text messages and if employees knew of them; had processes to respond to congressional and FOIA requests for text messages; used text for official business; deleted, destroyed, lost, or misplaced text messages necessary for records management; took action against employees for failing to preserve text messages; and notified the National Archives and Records Administration about any losses and how often they occurred.