Lisa Jackson's forthcoming departure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a major victory for transparency and accountability in Washington.
After years of whispers that EPA officials frequently used private email addresses, fake names and coded messages to circumvent the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, Jackson admitted recently to using "Richard Windsor" as her chosen nom de plume on a government email account.
That was her choice because it reminded her of a much-beloved family pet, she claimed. (At least she didn't ask how anybody could suspect a puppy lover like her of any wrongdoing.) The EPA inspector general opened an investigation into the matter because it is against federal law to use nonofficial or secret email addresses to conduct official business.
The EPA IG could hardly do otherwise. The use of private or secret emails enables high government muckety-mucks like Jackson to hide things about which they don't want the rest of us to know. But we don't need an investigation to know officials have been hiding bad things within the EPA for a very long time.
During the Clinton years, Carol Browner (a former senatorial aide to Vice President Gore) headed the EPA. She ordered the hard drive on her government computer to be reformatted and all backup tapes destroyed, just hours after a federal judge ordered her agency to preserve all agency email records. Only hopelessly naive or blindly partisan folks took seriously Browner's doe-eyed claim that it was all just a big mistake and she certainly wasn't trying to cover up anything. Nothing to see here, so move along, folks.
But nothing was done.
Then, in the course of litigation initiated a few months ago by Competitive Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Christopher Horner, an internal memo from the EPA's IT department turned up. It described the process for establishing and using secret email accounts.
That revelation sparked trench warfare among Jackson's EPA, a federal court, at least two committees in Congress, Horner and the CEI over thousands of other internal emails and documents likely to shed additional light on the illegalities going on at the environmental agency.
The conflict is far from over, and the odds favor some ugly revelations before any cease-fire is declared. Jackson's defenders will claim her departure has nothing to do with these matters. But Horner well makes the obvious point to the contrary: "It is not only implausible that Lisa Jackson's resignation was unrelated to her false identity, which we revealed, given how the obvious outcome and apparent objective of such subversion of transparency laws was intolerable. But it became an inevitability when, last week, the Department of Justice agreed (as a result of our lawsuit) to begin producing 12,000 of her 'Richard Windsor' alias accounts related to the war on coal Jackson was orchestrating on behalf of President Obama outside of the appropriate democratic process."
There's also this: Having held dozens of Jackson's most costly and controversial proposed regulations until after the election, the Obama administration is now releasing those regulatory bombs. Still having "Richard Windsor" at the EPA would have immeasurably complicated the legal and political battles occasioned by each of the new Jackson regulations.
Maybe, as Horner jokes, Jackson just wants to spend more time with her dog, but it's impossible not to think Jackson's sins against transparency account at least in part for her departure from the EPA.
Here's why this is so significant if you believe the public's business ought to be conducted in public: Nobody in government has ever gone to jail for violating the FOIA.
Jackson isn't going to jail, either, but at least now she won't be running the EPA under an alias.