In The News
Bridenstine challenges environmental agency on deleted text messages, emails
BY ETHAN BARTON
Rep. Jim Bridenstine challenged Thursday the Environmental Protection Agency's claim that its deletion of thousands of text messages sent to and from agency chief Gina McCarthy was justified.
"The EPA would have us believe that despite the fact that thousands of text messages are being received, none of them are important enough to be saved as federal record," said Bridenstine, R-Okla., during a hearing of the environment subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
"How can we know that the agency isn't getting rid of records it is required to preserve?" Bridenstine said.
Paul Wester, chief records officer of the National Archives and Records Administration, told Bridenstine that his agency's policies on preservation of text messages are limited and it would therefore be necessary to investigate the 5,000 deleted messages before concluding anything about the legal status of the deletions.
"As a general matter, NARA cannot speak authoritatively to agency compliance with the Federal Records Act," Wester said. "I can't comment without seeing their context."
Democrats on the panel weren't convinced, however, that the deletions were illegal.
"There is a difference between destroying a text message and destroying a federal record," said Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va. Beyer said he believes most of his text messages from his staff would not constitute a record that must be saved by law and that most official business is sent by email.
The EPA's Assistant Inspector General for Audits Kevin Christensen told the committee that he also couldn't comment on the deletions' legitimacy without knowing their context, but that it was unlikely that none of them fell under preservation policies.
His office initiated an audit in January of improperly deleted or lost text messages, whether employees used government devices for personal use and the agency's policies regarding record keeping. The audit's completion is expected in September.
Bridenstine's hearing followed issuance of a subpoena by the full committee's chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, for McCarthy's phone billing records and emails. The subpoena came after repeated McCarthy's agency failed multiple committee requests for documents.
"Committee staff has contacted EPA staff on at least 10 occasions in an attempt to obtain the information required for its oversight ..." Smith said Wednesday. "The EPA, however, has yet to produce all the requested documents information in un-redacted format."