On Sept. 16, one of our reporters came across a lawsuit that accuses a regional manager of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of serious wrongdoing. The lawsuit alleges that the manager maintained a separate email account, and by doing so was able to dodge the federal Freedom of Information Act.
According to the lawsuit, emails on the EPA's system are subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. That means members of the public or the press can obtain them to determine exactly what the agency is doing. By having a separate email account on Google or another Internet company, the manager allegedly avoided handing over his emails.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute, which brought the lawsuit, also claims officials at EPA and other federal agencies regularly use outside email accounts and the practice has reached "epidemic levels."
That's a serious allegation, and we wanted to get the EPA's side of the story. Our reporter called the EPA's Washington, D.C., headquarters and received no immediate response.
Two weeks later, an email showed up. It was from an official at the EPA's media relations office in Washington, D.C. Here's what it said: "EPA is strongly committed to transparency and strictly complies with open government laws such as the Freedom of Information Act. We will review this lawsuit closely and respond as appropriate."
It also included a request: "Please attribute to U.S. EPA, the agency, and not to a particular person."
In the course of reporting on agriculture, we regularly deal with a great many local, state and federal agencies. It is confounding to us that the single least responsive agency we deal with is the EPA. With rare exception, our questions are ignored or the answers are delayed, watered down and officials seek to hide behind a facade of anonymity.
When responses are offered, they contain little or no information -- and many times the public relations representative says he or she can't comment on a particular case and then asks not to be named.
And this is from an administration that portrays itself as "transparent."
Here is a portion of a memorandum President Barack Obama sent to agency heads shortly after taking office:
"Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use."
Apparently, the EPA never got the memo.