Last week, Justice Department documents turned over to a Congressional committee investigating circumstances behind the selective firing of seven US attorneys revealed that some Bush administration officials have primarily used email accounts maintained by the Republican National Committee to conduct official White House business. This appears to be a violation of the Presidential Records Act.
The revelation that White House staffers used outside email accounts to conduct administration business comes on the heels of a report in the National Journal alleging that Karl Rove uses an RNC email address to conduct a majority of his duties as White House political adviser.
Now Congressional investigators are taking a second look at public corruption cases it closed the books on. They'll try to determine if current and former White House officials were more deeply involved in scandals than previously known, and if so, whether administration officials used outside email accounts to cover up their involvement in cronyism or other malfeasance.
Congressman Henry Waxman (D-California), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee, intends to get to the bottom of the issue.
Citing Congress' investigation of White House contacts with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff as an example of apparent misuse of outside email accounts, Waxman is seeking the deposition of Susan Ralston regarding communication she had via email with Abramoff. Ralston is a former assistant to White House political adviser Karl Rove. The questioned emails between Ralston and Abramoff concerned official White House business conducted through Ralston's RNC email address, according to documents released by Waxman's committee.
Ralston, who was also an assistant to Abramoff prior to her tenure at the White House, told the lobbyist to contact her through her RNC email address concerning specific favors he requested from the White House on behalf of his clients, so as to avoid leaving an automatic paper trail that is established when White House email servers are used. Ralston hasn't yet responded to Waxman's request.
In letters sent last week to the RNC and the Bush/Cheney 2004 Campaign, Congressman Waxman urged the two groups to preserve all emails sent by White House officials from their servers, because of their relevance to Congressional probes, including the US attorney scandal.
"I am writing about email records in the possession of the Republican National Committee. Congressional investigations have revealed that White House officials have used nongovernmental email accounts, including those maintained by the RNC, to conduct official White House business," Waxman's letter states. "The Committee has questions about who has access to these email records and how the RNC protects them from destruction or tampering. The Committee also directs you to preserve all such records because of their potential relevance to Congressional investigations."
Waxman added that emails released by the Justice Department in connection with the US attorney probe appeared to demonstrate that White House officials were using their RNC email accounts to circumvent the archives system.
That statement has a familiar ring to it.
In a story first reported by Truthout last year, in a federal court document filed in January 2006 in US District Court in Washington, DC, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald revealed that his investigative team "learned that not all email of the Office of the Vice President and the Executive Office of the President for certain time periods in 2003 was preserved through the normal archiving process on the White House computer system." That document was filed during the discovery phase of the perjury and obstruction of justice trial against former vice presidential staffer I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
Less than two weeks after Fitzgerald revealed that emails from the White House were missing, 250 pages of emails from President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney's office were turned over to investigators working for the special prosecutor - more than two years after the investigation began.
The White House offered no official explanation concerning the circumstances regarding the sudden reappearance of the emails it turned over to Fitzgerald on February 6, 2006 or if there was any truth to Fitzgerald's allegations that the emails were not automatically archived. At the time, a White House spokeswoman would only say that staffers "discovered" the batch of documents during a search.
A number of theories emerged at the time in an attempt to explain why the emails were not preserved. Media reports settled on the idea that White House computers simply broke down and failed to archive the emails.
However, Steve Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' government secrecy project, said in an interview with the Associated Press last year that the reason the White House offered to explain how the emails went missing "invites suspicion."