Published Online: May 20, 1998
Published in Print: May 20, 1998, as Federal File


Federal File

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Illicit e-mail

Policies on using a company e-mail account for personal use vary among private employers. But if you're a Department of Education employee, don't even think about it.

After one employee's personal message unintentionally ended up in the hands of Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington, the outspoken Republican asked the department's inspector general to investigate employee e-mail use.

The brouhaha began May 5 when a worker in the office of educational research and improvement used her e-mail to forward a letter to colleagues that asked recipients to lobby against a legislative proposal by Sen. Gorton. The proposal--to channel funding for most federal education programs into block grants--had passed the Senate as an amendment to an education-savings-account bill.

Someone later forwarded the e-mail to Sen. Gorton's office.

It's illegal for federal workers to use their status to lobby for political causes. Now, Sen. Gorton wants to know if other Education Department employees are committing similar violations.

In a May 6 letter to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, the senator said he was "outraged."

"There are certainly much more productive, and more importantly, legal channels for the department to relay its dissatisfaction with legislation ... than to have an employee of the department encourage her fellow employees to take part in an illegal act," he wrote. Sen. Gorton also maintained that the worker had misrepresented his legislation.

According to a transcript distributed by Mr. Gorton's office, the e-mail the employee passed along said that "the Gorton amendment is a giant step backwards for women and girls in education" and would "effectively abolish the federal Department of Education."

A second note from another Education Department employee asked recipients to disregard the objectionable e-mail. "We cannot and are not asking you to contact the Hill," it said.

"We recognize this incident was inappropriate," said Julie Green, a spokeswoman for the Education Department. She said officials were looking into the incident and drafting a response to the senator, but did not believe such violations were common. No disciplinary action has been taken against the staff member.

Education Department workers are prohibited from using their e-mail for personal use, although the department is considering allowing "limited personal use," Ms. Green added.


Vol. 17, Issue 36, Page 25

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