White House illegally destroyed emails

The Bush Administration knowingly and openly violated the law by deleting email records for 51 White officials who had email accounts with the Republican National Committee.

A report issued Monday by the House Oversight Committee says the White House eliminated the email records to thwart a Congressional investigation into overt political activity by the White House.

The House investigation also found the White House lied about the number of staff members with the illegal RNC email accounts and deliberately concealed details on usage of the accounts.

The actions, the report concluded, are “extensive violations” of the federal law that requires preservation of White House records.

Reports The Associated Press:

The administration has said that about 50 White House officials had RNC e-mail accounts during Bush’s presidency. But the House committee found at least 88.

The RNC has preserved e-mails from some of the heaviest users, including 140,216 messages sent or received by Bush’s top political adviser in the White House, Karl Rove. However, “the RNC has preserved no e-mails for 51 officials,” said the interim report, issued by committee chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

The 51 include Ken Mehlman, a former White House political director who reportedly used his RNC account frequently, the report said.

“Given the heavy reliance by White House officials on RNC e-mail accounts, the high rank of the White House officials involved, and the large quantity of missing e-mails,” the report said, “the potential violation of the Presidential Records Act may be extensive.”

Republicans said there is no evidence that the law was violated or that the missing e-mails were of a government rather than political nature.

The records act requires presidents to assure that “the activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies that reflect the performance” of their duties are “adequately documented … and maintained,” the report said.

White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters he would not “respond specifically” to the committee’s findings but said the RNC e-mail accounts “were designed precisely to avoid Hatch Act violations that prohibit the use of government assets for certain political activities.” He added, “the RNC has had an e-mail preservation policy for White House staffers.”

Congressional Democrats are investigating whether White House officials used RNC e-mail accounts to conduct overtly political, and perhaps improper, activities such as planning which U.S. prosecutors to fire and preparing partisan briefings for employees in federal agencies.

Waxman’s committee is contacting numerous federal agencies to determine whether their records “contain some of the White House e-mails that have been destroyed by the RNC,” the report said.

In a statement, Waxman said the panel’s findings “should be a matter of grave concern for anyone who values open government.” He said the committee will investigate “who knew about the violations of the Presidential Records Act, why they did not act earlier, and what e-mails can be salvaged from RNC, White House, and agency computer systems.”

The committee’s top Republican, Tom Davis of Virginia, criticized the report, saying the panel should obtain more conclusive evidence before accusing the RNC and White House of wrongdoing. The evidence thus far, he said, “simply does not support the report’s breathless conclusions.”

Tracey Schmitt, a spokeswoman for the RNC, said the report appears to present Democrats’ partisan spin as fact.

“Not only have we been clear that we are continuing our efforts to search for e-mails, but there is no basis for an assumption that any e-mail not already found would be of an official nature,” she said.

The report especially criticized Alberto Gonzales, now the attorney general, for actions when he headed the White House Counsel’s office. There is evidence that under Gonzales the office “may have known that White House officials were using RNC e-mail accounts for official business, but took no action to preserve these presidential records,” the report said.

Snow said of the claim: “That’s an allegation. We’ll respond to it in due course.”

The report said the House committee may need to issue subpoenas “to obtain the cooperation of the Bush Cheney ’04 campaign.” It said the campaign acknowledges providing e-mail accounts “to 11 White House officials, but the campaign has unjustifiably refused to provide the committee with basic information about these accounts, such as the identity of the White House officials and the number of e-mails that have been preserved.

Eric Kuwana, the Bush-Cheney campaign’s counsel, said the requested documents “have no articulated connection” to the panel’s investigation “and very well may be the type and nature of political documents that are specifically exempt from the Presidential Records Act.”

The House committee report said Rove’s RNC e-mail account carried 75,374 messages to or from people with government, or .gov, accounts. It said the RNC has preserved 66,018 e-mails sent to or from former White House political affairs director Sara Taylor, and 35,198 sent to or from deputy director Scott Jennings.

“These e-mail accounts were used by White House officials for official purposes, such as communicating with federal agencies about federal appointments and policies,” the report said.

It said the White House counsel in early 2001 “issued clear written policies” instructing staffers “to use only the official White House e-mail system for official communications and to retain any official e-mails they received on a nongovernmental account.” Recent evidence “indicates that White House officials used their RNC e-mail accounts in a manner that circumvented these requirements,” the report said.