WASHINGTON (CN) - A government watchdog organization is suing Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Archivist David Ferriero for access to former Secretary Colin Powell's work emails.
In a complaint filed Wednesday in the D.C. federal court, the plaintiff Cause of Action Institute says Powell has yet to turn over any emails to the state department or to the National Archives and Records Administration from his time as secretary.
This, coupled with the outcome of a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing in early September spurred the conservative organization to petition the court for access to them.
During a Capitol Hill hearing in September, State Department Undersecretary Patrick Kennedy acknowledged Powell's use of a private email account while on the job and the department's failed efforts to recover emails sent to and from that account.
The Institute argues that although Kennedy justified the failed recovery efforts by claiming the state department did not have the legal authority to "make a request for someone else's records from their provider," the emails are in fact federal records and therefore belong not to Powell or his email service provider, but to the federal government.
During last month's hearing, the lack of access to Powell's emails left some committee members less than happy with mounting revelations.
"Non-cooperation here, even with the advice of counsel, is putting the country at risk," said Rep. Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat. "If we're putting secretaries of state under the microscope, it shouldn't just be Democrats under investigation, and that's what it feels like. We've got tens of thousands of documents produced by Secretary Clinton and we have only three documents in respect to Secretary Powell. This is a sham."
The Institute appears to agree.
In its complaint, it references an August 2014 memo from Kennedy's office in which contends that "all records generated by senior officials belong to the department of state."
The Institute is asking the court to find that defendants Kerry and Ferriero actively "violated the Federal Records Act by failing to initiate action through the U.S. attorney general for the recovery of federal records unlawfully removed by [Powell]."
"The obligation to initiate action through the attorney general to recover unlawfully removed records is a mandatory obligation, not subject to agency discretion," the complaint says.
The Institute also complains that in failing to secure Powell's emails, the defendants failed to enforce a long-held State Department policy.
The policy "long required that every departing employee sign a separation statement, form DS-109, indicating that they had surrendered all unclassified documents and papers relating to the official business of the government ... while in the employ of the department," the complaint says.
The Institute says the State Department has not uniformly enforced the requirement and Secretary Powell "never signed [the form] upon leaving the state department."
The Cause of Action Institute is represented by John Vecchione, Lee Steven, Ryan Mulvey and James Valvo.
In a statement, Cause of Action Institute Vice President John Vecchione said Kennedy's testimony at last week's hearing was illuminating.
"Our suit seeks to enforce this basic duty of the Government to maintain its own records. We are hopeful that the agencies involved, including the State Department, will be directed by the Courts to fulfill their statutory duties," Vecchione said.
A representative from the State Department did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment.
Former Secretary Powell's private email account was scoured by hackers and have been posted on the website dcleaks since early last summer.
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