The Associated Press has gone all investigative on electronic mail addresses. The imperative is public accountability: A trend toward secret e-mail addresses for top bureaucrats threatens to circumvent official investigations as well as probes from media outlets on government deliberations. Here’s how the AP puts things:
The secret email accounts complicate an agency’s legal responsibilities to find and turn over emails in response to congressional or internal investigations, civil lawsuits or public records requests because employees assigned to compile such responses would necessarily need to know about the accounts to search them. Secret accounts also drive perceptions that government officials are trying to hide actions or decisions.
So the AP went after e-mail addresses across the government, with by far the most interesting response coming from the Labor Department, where the minimum wage for records-fetching is apparently quite generous:
The Labor Department initially asked the AP to pay just over $1.03 million when the AP asked for email addresses of political appointees there. It said it needed pull 2,236 computer backup tapes from its archives and pay 50 people to pore over old records. Those costs included three weeks to identify tapes and ship them to a vendor, and pay each person $2,500 for nearly a month’s work.
Labor later back off and “provided the AP with email addresses for the agency’s Senate-confirmed appointees.”
But the notion of a $1 million-records-request raises a question: Would that have been a national record?
Mark Caramanica, freedom of information director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, thinks it would have been: “A million to me seems to be the highest I’ve ever heard,” says Carmanica. In his experience, Caramanica can remember numbers like $30,000, $40,000 — even up to $100,000 — but no mention of anything in the seven-figure range. “It stretches the imagination to conceive of a request that would cost $1 million to comply with,” he says.
If such a freedom of information request ever did occur, says Caramanica, the agency would just use one of the responses at its disposal — namely, that the search in question is too broad and “unduly burdensome.”