An independent report has all but destroyed one of the right's most cherished Obama administration “scandals,” a fever dream that featured former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson intentionally shirking transparency laws with the help of a secret email account under the name “Richard Windsor.” Fox News mentioned the saga in at least 40 different segments in the last year -- yet despite the network's fascination with the story, it has not covered the recent development, which undermines most of its previous coverage.
The EPA's Inspector General (IG) recently found “no evidence” that the department has “used, promoted, or encouraged the use of private email accounts to circumvent records management responsibilities.” The IG was similarly unable to turn up proof of any senior agency officials trying to dodge federal recordkeeping, and the report noted that the EPA has taken various actions to improve its electronic content management in the last four years.
That inquiry came in response to claims that Jackson and others were using such accounts to elude Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Congressional Republicans who pushed for the review had cited a Daily Caller article that reported Jackson used the name “Richard Windsor” for her “secret” secondary account. The Daily Caller got its information from the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a partly industry-funded free-market think tank obsessed with the idea that some elusive, unguarded conversation would expose the Obama administration's (effectively imaginary) “War on Coal.” (Later, when CEI actually got to read some FOIAed emails, it declared the lack of suspicious content somewhat suspicious).
But Jackson has explained that she regularly told people to “make sure” they searched for the Richard Windsor account when they made FOIA requests. Furthermore, EPA officials (and the IG) have noted that the use of a primary, staff-managed public account as well as a secondary account is common in both the public and private sectors in order to stem the flow of emails and get work done. Two former EPA administrators under George W. Bush reportedly used secondary (sub. required) email addresses as well.
However, the ordinariness of the practice didn't stop conservatives from feeding the “scandal” oxygen. Right-wing media couldn't get enough of Richard Windsor. They speculated that unseen emails contained information on an “expected” carbon tax (even though the administration has repeatedly stated that it is not pursuing a carbon tax). They bizarrely insinuated that the digital nom de plume was related to a “fetishistic” website (it was actually in honor of Jackson's family dog and hometown). They claimed the administrator was fleeing from the issue when she stepped down after a little over four years at the helm (neglecting to mention that she'd held the post longer than all but one past EPA chief). And in order to keep the “scandal” relevant once she resigned, they connected the allegations to Jackson's nominated replacement, Gina McCarthy (even though McCarthy told a Senate committee that she did not conduct business with a secondary account).
Fox News played a leading role in making Richard Windsor a story. A search of Nexis and internal video archives indicates that the network has mentioned the ordeal in more than 40 different segments in the last year, hosting the putative architect of the “scandal,” CEI's Christopher Horner, ten times to promote it. In all, about 86 percent of guests discussing the issue voiced anti-EPA sentiment (7 percent defended the EPA and 7 percent were neutral). Over 90 percent of segments did not mention the mitigating factor that previous administrations had also used secondary email accounts:
Horner specializes in filing FOIA requests in an attempt to dig up something -- anything -- that might shame climate scientists, government agencies and others. This has led the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to censure him for making “unreasonable, excessive Freedom of Information Act requests for personal information and voluminous data that are then used to harass and intimidate scientists.” It has also led Horner to tell Politico that such muckraking “could be a game-changer for the entire federal government.”
This isn't even the first time Fox News has hyped a Horner-engineered EPA “scandal” and then ignored the story once it fell apart. The network covered his claim that the EPA gave liberal groups favorable treatment in waiving FOIA fees at least a dozen times.
Ultimately both the secret email “scandal” and the FOIA fee “scandal,” like so many others that have captured Fox News' attention, ended with a whimper. It would be a welcome surprise if the network let viewers in on that secret.