By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
A Democratic House committee chairman yesterday told the Republican National Committee and the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign to retain copies of all e-mails sent or received by White House officials using e-mail accounts under their control, raising the political stakes in the congressional inquiry into U.S. attorneys' firings.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) said his broadly written request was based on evidence that White House officials -- particularly aides to top political adviser Karl Rove -- have used their politically related e-mail accounts to hide the conduct of official business regarding the prosecutor firings and other matters being investigated by Congress.
"The e-mails of White House officials maintained on RNC e-mail accounts may be relevant to multiple congressional investigations," Waxman wrote to the group's chairman, Mike Duncan, adding that as "governmental records" they are subject to preservation requirements and "eventual public disclosure."
Waxman, chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he also expects Duncan and Marc Racicot, the former Bush-Cheney campaign chief, to arrange a briefing on how their groups control and preserve such e-mails. A spokeswoman for Duncan, Tracey Schmitt, said of Waxman's letter, "We're reviewing it and will take appropriate action." Racicot did not return a phone call.
The request by a Democratic lawmaker for access to records kept by a rival party's campaign offices has a precedent: In the mid-1990s, when the same committee was under Republican control and investigating alleged campaign finance abuses by the Clinton White House, it demanded and obtained hundreds of pages of Democratic campaign records and communications.
"This is a classic congressional document-preservation warning," said University of Baltimore law professor Charles Tiefer, a former deputy and acting counsel to the House from 1984 to 1995. He said failure to comply could expose the groups to possible obstruction charges.
Yesterday's request was based, Waxman said, on at least three White House officials' use of Republican Party-affiliated e-mail accounts for some of their work in recent years, as well as on reports that Rove routinely uses his RNC e-mail account for business.
Waxman noted for example that J. Scott Jennings, the White House deputy director of political affairs, used a "gwb43.com" e-mail account last August to discuss the replacement of the U.S. attorney for Arkansas, Bud Cummins, according to e-mails released to Congress by the White House.
Barry Jackson, a deputy to Rove, in 2003 used a "georgewbush.com" e-mail account to consult with Neil G. Volz, then an aide to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, about nominating one of Abramoff's Indian tribe clients for a Medal of Freedom, according to a copy of an e-mail. Abramoff is now serving a prison sentence for bank fraud, and Volz plead guilty to conspiracy charges last year.
Susan B. Ralston, while she was executive assistant to Rove, similarly used "georgewbush.com" and "rnchq.org" e-mail accounts to confer in 2001 and 2003 with Abramoff, her former boss, about matters of interest to Abramoff's clients.
In a related e-mail, an Abramoff aide said Ralston had warned that "it is better to not put this stuff in writing in [the White House] . . . email system because it might actually limit what they can do to help us, especially since there could be lawsuits, etc."
Abramoff's response, according to a copy of his e-mail, was: "Dammit. It was sent to Susan on her rnc pager and was not supposed to go into the WH system."
Waxman said the exchange indicated that in some instances, White House officials were using nongovernmental accounts "specifically to avoid creating a record of communications" that are nonetheless subject to the committee's jurisdiction.