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The Next Bush Scandal?

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, April 10, 2007; 1:34 PM

The slowly-unfolding disclosure that some White House aides use non-government e-mail servers to conduct official business may soon be reaching scandal proportions.

As John D. McKinnon writes in today's Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "The widespread use of private email accounts by some top White House officials is sparking a congressional probe into the practice and whether it violates a post-Nixon law requiring that White House deliberations be documented.

"A top Democratic lawmaker says outside email accounts were used in an attempt to avoid scrutiny; the White House says their purpose was to avoid using government resources for political activities, although they were used to discuss the firing of U.S. attorneys."

Most of the e-mail accounts at issue are on Republican National Committee servers. For instance: "Susan Ralston, until recently presidential adviser Karl Rove's assistant at the White House, appears to have used at least four outside email accounts: a 'gwb' domain account, a 'georgewbush.com' account, and an 'rnchq.org' account -- all run by the RNC -- plus an AOL account. She once emailed two associates of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, 'I now have an RNC blackberry which you can use to e-mail me at any time. No security issues like my WH email.' . . .

"'At the end of the day, it looks like they were trying to avoid the records act . . . by operating official business off the official systems,' said John Podesta, who worked in the White House for the entire Clinton presidency, including a stint as chief of staff. . . .

"White House officials dispute the criticisms, saying the purpose of the RNC accounts has been to avoid running afoul of another federal law, the Hatch Act. It prohibits many federal officials from engaging in political activity on government time or with government resources."

Will these e-mails ever see the light of day? McKinnon writes: "The White House and RNC said the RNC is preserving the emails generated by White House officials on the RNC's computers, and that they are exempt from the RNC's normal policy of erasing emails after 30 days."

And yet, he notes: "When Congress adopted the Presidential Records Act, it didn't give any agency much authority to police the White House's handling of official records. . . . Congress also has had trouble obtaining many internal records from the political parties in the past."

Here's Bob Franken discussing the story on CNN yesterday: "It's about the Presidential Records Act, which requires the preservation of all official records of and about the president. . . .

"There are also messages to and from lobbyist Jack Abramoff, now in prison. At one point, according to investigators, after an e-mail was apparently sent by accident to the White House account of an assistant to Karl Rove, Abramoff fired another one saying, 'Damn it, it was not supposed to go in the White House system.' . . .

"Neither administration aides nor Republican Party officials would agree to be interviewed on camera after repeated requests from CNN. But a White House spokesman, Scott Stanzel, in a statement, called the use of different computers to have the separate e-mail account for political activities, 'appropriate, modeled after the historical practice of previous administrations.'"

The refusal of the White House press office to directly address specific questions about these e-mails leaves these issues unresolved:


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