By Mateusz Perkowski
A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to turn over documents about officials potentially using personal email accounts to conduct agency business, among other allegations.
The ruling stems from a lawsuit brought by the Landmark Legal Foundation, a limited government non-profit, against the agency over its lack of response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The group was concerned that EPA was postponing controversial regulations until after the 2012 presidential election among other "troubling possibilities," such as the Obama administration "improperly politicizing EPA activities," the complaint said
The complaint also raised the possibility that "EPA officials are attempting to shield their true policy goals from the public" and "are putting partisan interests above the public welfare."
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth has now ordered the EPA to answer questions and submit information about how it processed this FOIA request because its actions "may indicate bad faith on the part of the agency."
Such "discovery" of evidence is rare in FOIA lawsuits but is warranted in this case, Lamberth said.
"The possibility that unsearched personal email accounts may have been used for official business raises the possibility that leaders in the EPA may have purposefully attempted to skirt disclosure under the FOIA," he said in the ruling.
Landmark pointed to an email sent from the private address of Robert Perciasepe, former deputy administrator of the agency, as evidence of this practice, but the EPA never responded to these allegations, the judge said.
Lamberth said that "EPA's silence speaks volumes; its failure to deny that personal accounts were being used to conduct official business leaves open the possibility that they were."
The ruling notes that some records, like former administrator Lisa Jackson's communications on personal electronic devices, "may or may not be out of EPA's reach now."
Another potential problem is the possibility that EPA tried to exclude the agency's top administrators from the scope of the FOIA search, since the agency "appears to have changed its story" about how it interpreted the Landmark Legal Foundation's request, he said.
"The record leaves open the possibility that, one way or another, the agency engaged in bad faith conduct by excluding the top politically appointed leaders from Landmark's FOIA request at least initially," Lamberth said, later adding that the agency's statements "contain numerous inconsistencies and reversals which undermine confidence in their truthfulness."
Eric Christensen, vice president for development and communications, said the ruling speaks for itself and would not comment on the case. Capital Press was unable to reach a spokesperson for the EPA as of press time.