White House doesn’t have to turn over e-mail records, rules judge

A judge ruled Monday that the U.S. Executive Office of the President doesn’t have to turn over information on an alleged 10 million missing e-mail messages to a government watchdog group seeking information on how the e-mails were lost.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) had sought information on the missing e-mails through the 41-year-old Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled that the Office of Administration (OA) in the Executive Office of the President is not subject to the law that allows citizens to request that the U.S. government disclose the contents of previously unreleased documents.

President George Bush’s administration sought to remove the OA from the information act’s requirements in 2006 and 2007, Kollar-Kotelly noted. OA is also not the type of independent agency covered under FOIA, and the office generally exists to assist the U.S. president, she wrote in her ruling. A 1974 amendment to FOIA excepted branches of the Executive Office that existed only to advise and assist the president.

CREW had argued that the Bush White House may have been covering up links to a lobbying scandal, alleged political influence at the U.S. General Services Administration and other problems by deleting the e-mail. White House staffers sometimes used outside e-mail accounts to conduct official business, CREW said in an April 2007 report.

CREW had argued that the White House is required to keep e-mail messages under the Presidential Records Act.

CREW has appealed the judge’s decision, said Melanie Sloan, the group’s executive director.

“The Bush administration is using the legal system to prevent the American people from discovering the truth about the millions of missing White House e-mails,” she said in a statement. “The fact is, until CREW asked for documents pertaining to this problem, the Office of Administration routinely processed FOIA requests. Only because the administration has so much to hide here, has the White House taken the unprecedented position that OA is not subject to the FOIA.”

The White House didn’t have an immediate comment on Kollar-Kotelly’s ruling.

In February, Kollar-Kotelly issued a ruling allowing CREW to have limited access to OA records. The OA did deliver more than 1,300 pages of documents to CREW, but it said it was withholding thousands more.

CREW’s allegations that there are more than 10 million missing White House e-mails from March 2003 to October 2005 has led to inquiries from Congress, as well. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, controlled by Democrats, has investigated the alleged missing e-mails. In April, three Democrats, including Committee Chairman Henry Waxman of California introduced the Electronic Communications Preservation Act, which would require the U.S. archivist to establish standards for the preservation of White House e-mails.

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