By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
White House aides made extensive use of political e-mail accounts for official government business, despite rules requiring that they conduct such business through official communications channels, according to new evidence disclosed yesterday by congressional investigators.
The Republican National Committee told the investigators that White House senior political adviser Karl Rove alone sent or received more than 140,000 e-mails between 2002 and 2007, more than half of which involved individuals using official ".gov" e-mail accounts, a report from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said. The RNC said it still has copies of those e-mails.
Former Rove assistant Susan B. Ralston affirmed in a deposition released by the committee that her ex-boss used his political e-mail account "most of the time."
The White House previously acknowledged that aides to President Bush improperly used the political e-mail accounts. But the material released yesterday details for the first time how frequently they used the accounts and for what purposes.
The committee said it learned that the White House aides used the RNC accounts to discuss official matters such as appointments and grant announcements. It also said at least 88 White House officials had RNC e-mail accounts, a figure above previous administration statements that only about 50 had such accounts.
The report also said many RNC e-mails involving others besides Rove and one of his aides have been lost, either under its deletion policy or individual deletions by senior officials. "As a result of these policies, potentially hundreds of thousands of White House e-mails have been destroyed, many of which may be presidential records," the report said.
Congressional Democrats have suggested that Rove and other White House officials may have used the political accounts to avoid scrutiny of their decisions from Congress, but the report offered no evidence about their motives. Ralston said Rove believed all of his e-mails were being saved even though the RNC had a policy until 2004 of destroying all e-mails after 30 days.
The Democrats became interested in the e-mails in part because of the controversy over the Justice Department's firing of nine U.S. attorneys, in which Rove's office played a role. Ex-White House political director Sara Taylor, a Rove aide at the time, was an extensive user of RNC e-mail accounts, with more than 66,000 of her RNC e-mails preserved, the report said.
"It is troubling that so many senior White House officials, including Karl Rove and his former deputy Sara Taylor, were engaging in an effort to avoid oversight and accountability by ignoring the laws meant to ensure a public record of official government business," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "This extensive end run around the laws leads one to wonder what these officials wanted to hide from the public and Congress."
Republican officials scoffed at the Democrats' claim. White House press secretary Tony Snow declined to respond in detail but said the purpose of the RNC accounts was to make sure officials did not violate the Hatch Act, which prohibits the use of official government resources for partisan political activities.
RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said in an e-mail that the committee should not assume more e-mails will not be found. "This is not necessarily the total number of e-mails preserved," she said. "The RNC has repeatedly made clear to the committee that it is continuing to search for e-mails."
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), the ranking Republican on the oversight committee, criticized the report and accused Democrats of rushing to judgment about Rove and other senior White House officials. He said the report "ignores the good-faith efforts of the Republican National Committee and the White House to provide information, briefings and documents" to the committee. Ralston's deposition spelled out her interest in obtaining immunity from the committee before testifying on other matters, including the relationship between White House officials and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Ralston worked for Abramoff before going to work at the White House.
Ralston's attorney, Brad Berenson, told the investigators during the deposition that Ralston is interested in helping the committee and has "useful information." While she does not believe she has violated the law, Berenson said, Ralston "doesn't have sufficient comfort that testimony provided in this setting on those subjects will not have some tendency to inculpate her, at least in the eyes of someone who is inclined . . . to put the worst possible construction on events."
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the oversight committee, said in an interview that he has "no plans at the present moment" to give anybody immunity and intends further investigation over what he described as a "complete disregard" of the Presidential Records Act. That act requires the White House to take steps to maintain a documentary record of presidential decisions and deliberations. According to the committee, the White House counsel's office issued clear policies soon after the Bush inauguration in 2001, instructing the White House staff to use only the official White House e-mail system for official business.
But investigators suggested that this instruction was routinely flouted, as senior officials used the RNC accounts on a "regular and consistent basis," according to the report, which was based on information subpoenaed from the RNC and supplied by federal agencies as well as Ralston's testimony. According to the committee's data, Rove and six other White House officials all averaged more than 100 e-mails sent or received each weekday during the period that their accounts were active.
The committee did not say how much of this e-mail pertained to official government business but noted it received partial inventories of e-mails from some of those who communicated with White House officials using RNC and Bush-Cheney '04 accounts. Inventories from the Transportation Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Election Commission said that many of these e-mails were about official appointments and personnel matters, the report said.
The committee noted that the RNC said that it has retained no e-mail messages for 51 of the 88 White House officials with RNC e-mail accounts. Ralston testified that at least 20 of these officials used RNC e-mail accounts, in some cases regularly.