The Obama Administration and the Case of the Disappearing Emails

It’s happening again. Just two months after the IRS said it could not produce thousands of emails from Lois Lerner and six other employees who were potentially involved in the targeting of conservative groups, the Department of Health and Human Services is using the same excuse. David Morgan reports for Reuters:

A top U.S. healthcare official involved in the botched rollout of the website HealthCare.gov may have deleted some emails that were later sought by Republican congressional investigators, administration officials said on Thursday.

The emails were from a public email account maintained by Marilyn Tavenner, who heads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) agency chiefly responsible for implementing President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform law. . .

The letter made no reference to any evidence that Tavenner intentionally hid or destroyed the emails. An administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, attributed the potential loss to “sloppy record keeping”.

CMS wants you to believe that this is a mere accident – that Tavenner was acting to stay below the agency’s Microsoft Outlook email size limit, but the procedure she used led to some emails getting deleted rather than archived. Oops.

But House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrel Issa (R – Calif.), who is investigating why Healthcare.gov went live despite the lack of testing and contractor concerns,  is beginning to notice a troubling pattern in his investigations.

“The Obama administration has lost or destroyed emails for more than 20 witnesses, and in each case, the loss wasn’t disclosed to the National Archives or Congress for months of years, in violation of federal law,” Issa said in response to Tavenner’s lost emails.

“It defies logic that so many senior Administration officials were found to have ignored federal recordkeeping requirements only after Congress asked to see their emails,” he continued.

Issa is exactly right. As Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review:

Federal law tasks the heads of all federal agencies (CMS included) with “mak[ing] and preserv[ing] records containing adequate and proper documentation of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and essential transactions of the agency and designed to furnish the information necessary to protect the legal and financial rights of the Government and of persons directly affected by the agency’s activities.”

Tavenner was also legally required to “establish safeguards against the removal or loss of records . . . determine[d] to be necessary and required by regulations of the archivist.”So in the best-case scenario, Tavenner willfully ignored her legal responsibilities as head of CMS, not to mention the Federal Records Act and the regulations of the National Archives and Records Administration.

So in the best-case scenario, Tavenner willfully ignored her legal responsibilities as head of CMS, not to mention the Federal Records Act and the regulations of the National Archives and Records Administration.

And I think we already know what the worst case scenario is: The most “open and transparent” administration in history is actively working to hide damaging information. Given this White House’s pattern of behavior and the capabilities of current technology, that’s not an explanation that should be dismissed out of hand.

Especially since the GOP has since uncovered an email from Tavenner that begins with the words “please delete this email,” a directive that is not only against the law, but directly contradicts her assertion that she instructed her subordinates to retain copies.

“It’s hard to believe in this era, where you have servers, and backup servers, and all kinds of technology that can recover all kinds of emails, that these emails simply don’t exist,” Associated Press reporter Julie Pace told CNN’s John King recently. “If that is true, and they don’t exist, why wasn’t that one of the first things that was told to Congress?”

Perhaps that’s a question worthy of its own investigation. Sadly, it may be tough to get answers given how quickly emails are disappearing.