From destroyed hard drives at the IRS to bogus email accounts at the EPA, agency record-keeping scandals have stymied congressional investigations and are fueling calls for beefed-up enforcement of the federal records laws to prevent future tampering with critical evidence.
A House committee on Thursday approved measures that would require federal agencies to preserve instant messages and fire workers who destroy records — concerns that have come to light in the ongoing IRS targeting scandal centered on former top official Lois G. Lerner.
“We know that emails and communications are happening daily that are not getting preserved,” Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican, said in an interview before he introduced the legislation.
Under the Federal Records Accountability Act, federal employees would be barred from using instant messaging accounts for official business except in “exigent” circumstances, with such messages still being preserved to an official account within 10 days.
Federal workers who destroy records, including by failing to preserve instant messages, could be subject to removal, fines or imprisonment under the proposal.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform approved the measure along with a bill to make it easier for agencies to fire members of the Senior Executive Service, the top level of the federal bureaucracy, who commit misconduct.
“Scandal after scandal, failure after failure, the American people are tired of seeing federal officials escape accountability,” Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, said in a statement after both pieces of legislation won committee passage Thursday.
Mr. Meadows said the legislation addresses a scattershot approach across government on efforts to preserve instant messaging communications. The Washington Times reported earlier this month on an IRS tech staffer’s admission that the agency doesn’t store instant messaging accounts, revealing a potentially huge loophole in federal record-keeping practices.
Of 17 agencies surveyed by The Times, only two said they had policies requiring that instant messages be stored as official, searchable records.
Mr. Meadows said that’s unacceptable.
Aside from enforcement, it’s equally important to preserve records for their historical value, the lawmaker said.
“When a great amount of communication is happening that’s not documented or retrievable, it fails to tell the story of why we did the things we did — the cause and effect,” he said.
“When you look at the Library of Congress or the National Archives 50 years from now, what are those files going to look like? We have a responsibility so we can put it all together so we don’t repeat the same mistakes or so we can celebrate our successes, whichever the case may be.”
Lately, it’s been high-profile record-keeping failures that have sparked lawmaker interest in pursuing a stricter record-compliance law.
Officials at the IRS said in a sworn court document last week that Ms. Lerner’s hard drive was destroyed, and they’ve been unable to retrieve its records. Days later, the agency posted a solicitation seeking a contractor to help destroy about 3,200 other agency hard drives.
Ms. Lerner, the former director in charge of the IRS unit overseeing tax-exempt entities, resigned last year, but she remains the central figure in the IRS scandal of the agency’s targeting of conservative groups that sought nonprofit status.
Records released recently as part of a congressional probe reveal that she’d once asked whether instant messaging records were stored, a question that arose during a discussion that appeared to revolve around hiding information from Congress.
A top IRS official has told Congress that other officials have had their hard drives crash, though the agency isn’t alone. Earlier this month, a group of Republican senators questioned what they called an “epidemic of hard drive crashes,” pointing to the case of a former EPA official whose computer records were lost even as he remains the focus of a congressional probe.
Another hard drive crash at the Federal Election Commission apparently claimed the computer belonging to employee April Sands, who once reportedly worked for Ms. Lerner at the regulatory agency. Ms. Sands recently admitted violating the Hatch Act by campaigning for President Obama while on duty.
Meanwhile, lawmakers continue to express concern about agency officials using personal email accounts to conduct official business. The most infamous example involved former EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, who went by the alias “Richard Windsor”.
In an earlier case, Mr. Issa’s committee released records showing that Department of Energy officials had used personal email accounts to discuss the department’s loan program, which came under scrutiny after the collapse of solar panel maker Solyndra.
But Mr. Issa’s predecessor on the oversight panel, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, expressed some of the same concerns back in 2008, saying the Jack Abramoff lobbying investigation and other scandals brought to light “extensive use” of nongovernmental email accounts in the George W. Bush White House.
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