Interim report on RNC emails and the Presidential Records Act

An interim report from the House of Representatives Oversight Committee is up concerning the investigation of White House officials’ use of Republican National Convention email addresses in apparent violation of the Presidential Records Act. The committee is researching how much official government business was conducted using these addresses by White House staff members and how little of that business was preserved as required by the 1978 Presidential Records Act.

The number of White House officials given RNC e-mail accounts is higher than previously disclosed. In March 2007, White House spokesperson Dana Perino said that only a “handful of officials” had RNC e-mail accounts. In later statements, her estimate rose to “50 over the course of the administration.” In fact, the Committee has learned from the RNC that at least 88 White House officials had RNC e-mail accounts. The officials with RNC e-mail accounts include Karl Rove, the President’s senior advisor; Andrew Card, the former White House Chief of Staff; Ken Mehlman, the former White House Director of Political Affairs; and many other officials in the Office of Political Affairs, the Office of Communications, and the Office of the Vice President.

White House officials made extensive use of their RNC e-mail accounts. The RNC has preserved 140,216 e-mails sent or received by Karl Rove. Over half of these e-mails (75,374) were sent to or received from individuals using official “.gov” e-mail accounts. Other heavy users of RNC e-mail accounts include former White House Director of Political Affairs Sara Taylor (66,018 e-mails) and Deputy Director of Political Affairs Scott Jennings (35,198 e-mails). These e-mail accounts were used by White House officials for official purposes, such as communicating with federal agencies about federal appointments and policies.

There has been extensive destruction of the e-mails of White House officials by the RNC. Of the 88 White House officials who received RNC e-mail accounts, the RNC has preserved no e-mails for 51 officials. In a deposition, Susan Ralston, Mr. Rove’s former executive assistant, testified that many of the White House officials for whom the RNC has no e-mail records were regular users of their RNC e-mail accounts. Although the RNC has preserved no e-mail records for Ken Mehlman, the former Director of Political Affairs, Ms. Ralston testified that Mr. Mehlman used his account “frequently, daily.” In addition, there are major gaps in the e-mail records of the 37 White House officials for whom the RNC did preserve e-mails. The RNC has preserved only 130 e-mails sent to Mr. Rove during President Bush’s first term and no e-mails sent by Mr. Rove prior to November 2003. For many other White House officials, the RNC has no e-mails from before the fall of 2006.

There is evidence that the Office of White House Counsel under Alberto Gonzales 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. In her deposition, Ms. Ralston testified that she searched Mr. Rove’s RNC e-mail account in response to an Enron-related investigation in 2001 and the investigation of Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald later in the Administration. According to Ms. Ralston, the White House Counsel’s office knew about these e-mails because “all of the documents we collected were then turned over to the White House Counsel’s office.” There is no evidence, however, that White House Counsel Gonzales initiated any action to ensure the preservation of the e-mail records that were destroyed by the RNC.

Information is also available in the article from a deposition made by Susan Ralston, former Special Assistant to the President and deputy to Karl Rove. She is questioned about Rove’s use of email for official business, his use of a Blackberry, conversations he had with Scooter Libby, and more.

I believe the ultimate focus of this investigation is whether White House staff members were intentionally skirting Presidential Records Act record preservation requirements, what happened to all the missing records, and whether this is a Watergate erased-tape style cover-up (well, all those things and a vindicative strikeback at President Bush by the Democratic majority). This is worth keeping up with to learn a little more about how the White House has handled official business during the current administration.

We all expect politicians will hide their activities on occasion – some politicians more than others. It is worth learning if this is Watergate scandal level coverup, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” coverup, accidental mishandling of official business and associated records, or something else all together. As much as this is likely driven in part (maybe even largely) by opposing political party sniping issues, it is important no matter who is in charge of each branch of government that we investigate questionable behavior by our leaders. The higher the level of responsibility and the greater the power wielded by those at the top (of all branches) necessitates extra scrutiny.

[tags]Presidential Records Act, Senate investigation of White House business, White House use of unofficial communication channels, Who watches the watchers?[/tags]