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Critics seek cloaked Obama administration emails

Published: Monday, Nov. 26 2012 12:44 p.m. MST

President Barack Obama gestures as he answers a question during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Jacquelyn Martin, AP

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Congressional Republicans are pressing the Obama administration to make public emails in which public business is conducted, arguing that some government agencies are skirting the law by cloaking exchanges using shadow email addresses and by evading public information requests.

The House Science Committee is pressing the Environmental Protection Agency to respond to charges that the EPA has systematically used private emails to conduct public business in order to obscure them from Freedom of Information Act exposure.

“Unfortunately, time and again, actions by the administration on transparency have fallen far short of the president’s rhetoric, in many instances trending away from transparency and toward greater secrecy,” Science Committee Chairman Ralph Hall wrote in a letter signed by five other lawmakers.

Concerns over lack of transparency provoked the Orange County Register in California to editorialize on the matter on Friday.

"An analysis by Bloomberg News in September found 19 of 20 Cabinet-level agencies failed to follow requirements of the Freedom of Information Act," the Register said, "disobeying the law's mandate to disclose public information. The analysis of government requests filed by Bloomberg News discovered an alarming number of transparency violations, particularly when it came to taxpayer-funded costs of travel by top officials."

Meanwhile, the Competitive Enterprise Institute has sued the Treasury Department, invoking the FOIA in seeking access to 7,300 emails that, it argues, may be laying groundwork for a controversial carbon tax, according to a Nov. 13 CEI press release.

CEI claims Treasury dragged its feet for several months and then tried to charge a hefty fee to photocopy the emails — which were requestd in electronic form — despite the fact that nonprofit watchdog groups are normally granted fee waivers.

"CEI requested emails that included the word 'carbon' from the agency charged with setting up cap-and-trade or a carbon tax. 'It's possible this office, whose sole purpose was to manage a cap-and-trade or carbon tax program was despairing, in thousands of emails, why people no longer use carbon paper,' said Christopher Horner, an attorney representing CEI. “Otherwise, it seems we have an enormous history over the past year of discussions with lobbyists, pressure groups, contributors and maybe even Republicans about how to impose this massive new energy tax."

On Nov. 20, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner backing the CEI request and asking that the agency move quickly and waive the fees. "As you surely know," Vitter wrote, "FOIA was aimed in large part at promoting active oversight of government agencies by watchdog groups, and there is precedent against forcing payment to discourage a request."

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

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