Feds may soon have to save in­stant mes­sages

House plan would head off re­peat of IRS scandal

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY JIM MCEL­HAT­TON

From de­stroyed hard drives at the IRS to bo­gus email ac­counts at the EPA, agency record-keep­ing scan­dals have stymied con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tions and are fu­el­ing calls for beefed-up en­force­ment of the fed­eral records laws to pre­vent fu­ture tam­per­ing with crit­i­cal ev­i­dence.

A House com­mit­tee on Thurs­day ap­proved mea­sures that would re­quire fed­eral agen­cies to pre­serve in­stant mes­sages and fire work­ers who de­stroy records — con­cerns that have come to light in the on­go­ing IRS tar­get­ing scandal cen­tered on for­mer top of­fi­cial Lois G. Lerner.

“We know that emails and com­mu­ni­ca­tions are hap­pen­ing daily that are not get­ting pre­served,” Rep. Mark Mead­ows, North Carolina Repub­li­can, said in an in­ter­view be­fore he in­tro­duced the leg­is­la­tion.

Un­der the Fed­eral Records Ac­count­abil­ity Act, fed­eral em­ploy­ees would be barred from us­ing in­stant mes­sag­ing ac­counts for of­fi­cial busi­ness ex­cept in “ex­i­gent” cir­cum­stances, with such mes­sages still be­ing pre­served to an of­fi­cial ac­count within 10 days.

Fed­eral work­ers who de­stroy records, in­clud­ing by fail­ing to pre­serve in­stant mes­sages, could be sub­ject to re­moval, fines or im­pris­on­ment un­der the pro­posal.

The House Com­mit­tee on Over­sight and Govern­ment Re­form ap­proved the mea­sure along with a bill to make it eas­ier for agen­cies to fire mem­bers of the Se­nior Ex­ec­u­tive Ser­vice, the top level of the fed­eral bu­reau­cracy, who com­mit mis­con­duct.

“Scandal af­ter scandal, fail­ure af­ter fail­ure, the Amer­i­can peo­ple are tired of see­ing fed­eral officials es­cape ac­count­abil­ity,” Com­mit­tee Chair­man Rep. Dar­rell Issa, Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­can, said in a state­ment af­ter both pieces of leg­is­la­tion won com­mit­tee pas­sage Thurs­day.

Mr. Mead­ows said the leg­is­la­tion ad­dresses a scat­ter­shot ap­proach across govern­ment on ef­forts to pre­serve in­stant mes­sag­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions. The Wash­ing­ton Times re­ported ear­lier this month on an IRS tech staffer’s ad­mis­sion that the agency doesn’t store in­stant mes­sag­ing ac­counts, re­veal­ing a po­ten­tially huge loop­hole in fed­eral record-keep­ing prac­tices.

Of 17 agen­cies sur­veyed by The Times, only two said they had poli­cies re­quir­ing that in­stant mes­sages be stored as of­fi­cial, search­able records.

Mr. Mead­ows un­ac­cept­able.

Aside from en­force­ment, it’s equally im­por­tant to pre­serve records for their his­tor­i­cal value, the law­maker said.

“When a great amount of com­mu­ni­ca­tion is hap­pen­ing that’s not doc­u­mented or re­triev­able, it fails to tell the story of why we did the things we did — the cause and ef­fect,” he said.

“When you look at the Li­brary of Congress or the Na­tional Ar­chives 50 years from now, what are those files go­ing to look like? We have a re­spon­si­bil­ity … so we can put it all to­gether so we don’t


that’s re­peat the same mis­takes or so we can cel­e­brate our suc­cesses, which­ever the case may be.”

Lately, it’s been high-pro­file record-keep­ing fail­ures that have sparked law­maker in­ter­est in pur­su­ing a stricter record-com­pli­ance law.

Officials at the IRS said in a sworn court doc­u­ment last week that Ms. Lerner’s hard drive was de­stroyed, and they’ve been un­able to re­trieve its records. Days later, the agency posted a so­lic­i­ta­tion seek­ing a con­trac­tor to help de­stroy about 3,200 other agency hard drives.

Ms. Lerner, the for­mer direc­tor in charge of the IRS unit over­see­ing tax-ex­empt en­ti­ties, re­signed last year, but she re­mains the cen­tral fig­ure in the IRS scandal of the agency’s tar­get­ing of con­ser­va­tive groups that sought non­profit sta­tus.

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