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Saturday, February 24, 2024
Courthouse News Service
Saturday, February 24, 2024 | Back issues
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Pseudonyms Didn’t Boost Case for EPA Records

(CN) - A challenge to the government's use of pseudonyms and secret email addresses in response to public records request has all but ended with a federal judge finding overall compliance.

Think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act in 2012 after revelations that Environmental Protection Agency officials used secret email accounts to conduct government business and skirt public disclosure laws. The libertarian group specifically demanded information of administrator Lisa Jackson's use of a secret email address and alias "Richard Windsor" to evade FOIA requests.

The agency produced over 10,000 records in response to CEI's request as well as two sample Vaughn indices, which offer justifications for why it withheld some records. Unsatisfied, CEI demanded that the EPA reprocess all withheld documents and provide full explanations for why the records were withheld.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg found Wednesday that the EPA performed an adequate search for the records in question.

"Hazy allegations of administrative malfeasance may sound incriminating, but the court requires concrete, specific challenges to the sufficiency of EPA's search in order to deny the agency summary judgment on this point," Boasberg wrote. "CEI has failed to provide them, and so the court finds summary judgment proper on the adequacy of the search."

The sample Vaughn indices also passed muster with the judge, though he ordered the agency to disclose information regarding former EPA administrator Carol Browner - more recently an adviser to the Obama administration. Regulators argued that Browner's White House email address was protected information to "avoid potential unsolicited communications."

Though he called the question "close," Boasberg disagreed.

"It is clear that White House staff have a powerful privacy interest in their work email addresses while they are employed, but it is less certain whether much interest remains after they have left the government," he wrote. "At the same time, although the public interest in the specific spelling of an inactive address might seem minor, this entire case began because an EPA official was using an alternative work email address under a previously unknown alias. There is a public interest, therefore, in knowing whether Browner used her personal or official email address to communicate with EPA and whether the official email address she used reflected her real name or an alias, both for the sake of future FOIA requesters and for those curious about White House compliance with federal record-keeping laws."

Records relating to Browner's official email address alone face release since the public has an interest only "in knowing whether Browner was using an official account under her own name or under an alias," the judge said.

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