U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sent and received a “limited number” of emails related to official government business from her personal accounts, a review found. And because she didn’t take the right steps preserve those messages, some were improperly omitted from the response to a public records request.
Sandra D. Bruce, acting inspector general at the Education Department, reviewed the personal email use of political appointees at the agency in response to an October 2017 request from Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees spending at the department. DeLauro is one of DeVos’ most aggressive critics in Congress.
“We determined that, based on the Secretary’s response to our survey and our review of her Department email accounts, the Secretary’s emails related to government business were not always being properly preserved,” said the review, dated May 16. “During our review, the Office of the Secretary informed us that it was taking additional steps to identify and preserve emails in the Secretary’s personal accounts that may have involved government business, including forwarding such emails to the Secretary’s Department account.”
Why Does Personal E-mail Use by Government Officials Matter?
The matter of private email use by government employees became a key talking point in the 2016 election, when it was discovered that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had used a home server to send messages while she served as secretary of state in the Obama administration.
When they are not a talking points in presidential races, the email habits of government employees are a matter of transparency.
Under federal law, government officials must carefully archive and preserve all materials related to official business. With some exceptions, those materials are considered public documents and must be provided in response to open records, or Freedom of Information Act, requests from reporters and members of the public. That ensures that “We the People” know what our government is (or isn’t) doing.
But the use of personal email accounts can lead some public records to fall through the cracks of traditional record-keeping. So federal law requires agencies’ employees to avoid using personal email or messaging apps for official business. If they do, they are required to “forward the message to the Department’s email system within 20 days.”
“Although the Department’s written policy states only that a record in a personal account should be forwarded to the Department’s email system, 44 U.S.C. § 2911 requires any record created or sent with a nonofficial messaging account must be sent to the official account of the employee,” the report says.
That was the problem for DeVos, whose emails from four personal accounts largely showed up in the inboxes of other employees who were included on the messages.
“In response to one FOIA request for email to and from any private email account controlled by the Secretary, we found that the Department did not identify or produce responsive email that we identified during our review. For another FOIA request, the Department did identify and produce email sent by the Secretary from her private account,” the report says.
Investigators reviewing DeVos’ private accounts found fewer than 100 emails sent or received between Jan. 20, 2017, and April 10, 2018, the dates included in the review. Most came in the first six months in her time at the department and “were from a single writer who was offering advice on potential candidates for Department positions,” who copied other department employees on their official accounts.
Investigators also reviewed five records requests the agency had responded to as of May 2018.
Improving Email Practices
The inspector general’s staff surveyed 51 other political appointees who were at the department as of Nov. 9, 2017. Of the 51 responses they received, 40 said they had used personal email or messaging to conduct government business. They cited a variety of reasons, including working after hours and technical issues. Of those appointees, 20 said they had used their private email more than 10 times to conduct government business, forwarding their emails to their accounts at the agency. Investigators reviewed the email accounts of four of those employees and found that they had properly forwarded the messages.
In response to the review, the Education Department said it planned to:
- Ensure that any messages sent or received by DeVos’s private accounts were archived at the agency.
- Update its records training to more clearly direct employees on preserving private emails.
- Improve its practices for complying with FOIA requests related to private emails.
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