EPA faces internal review over scrubbed text messages

NEWYou can now listen to Fox News articles!

The Environmental Protection Agency, on the heels of the controversy at the IRS over missing emails, is facing a probe of its own over whether it improperly scrubbed text messages.

The EPA inspector general's office announced this week it is launching an audit into the agency's policies for keeping text messages. The audit was prompted by a complaint from Republicans on the House science committee, worried the EPA may have "deleted thousands of text messages" that should have been preserved.

Jennifer Kaplan, spokeswoman for the EPA inspector general's office, confirmed the complaint prompted the audit.

"Our auditors were persuaded that this is something that they needed to look into," she told FoxNews.com.

The official IG notice said they would examine whether the EPA followed policies on preserving text messages, or whether they deleted or destroyed messages that should have been saved -- and if so, whether anyone was disciplined.

"Our objective is to determine whether the EPA adhered to applicable laws, regulations, and agency policies and procedures for records management, and preserved text messages when conducting official business," the notice said.

An "audit" is short of a full-blown investigation. But if any serious wrongdoing is turned up, it can be referred for investigation. "It's an audit right now," Kaplan said. "It will take at least a number of months to look at the issue carefully."

The review could be another headache for an agency that has long faced questions about its record-keeping. Those concerns have only gained more attention after former IRS official Lois Lerner came under fire for missing emails, sought in the course of congressional probes into the targeting of conservative groups.

Last November, House science committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, wrote to EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins seeking a review. He cited concerns about a possible "pattern of behavior directed at subverting transparency and accountability."

In a statement at the time, Smith said: "Why delete thousands of text messages unless you have something to hide? Americans deserve transparency from their government officials."

Smith was referring to an article in The Hill that said the EPA told a federal court it may have lost text messages sought by the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute think tank -- which wants text messages to and from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

The EPA has argued, though, that the text messages did not have to be preserved.

In a statement to FoxNews.com on Friday, the agency said it has reviewed internal policies and notified the National Archives and Records Administration "that EPA is not aware of any evidence that federal records were unlawfully destroyed."

The agency said the messages are "unlikely to qualify for preservation as a federal record, due to the inherent limitations of mobile device communications."

Further, the agency said, "EPA is not aware of any individual non-compliance" with guidance telling employees to save certain content on mobile devices. And the EPA said text messages qualify as a type of record that can be deleted "when no longer needed."

Smith has disputed these arguments. In his letter to Elkins, he cited requirements for the EPA to maintain electronic files and "preserve any records" from devices that count as EPA records.

This is hardly the first time the EPA has faced questions about missing or obscured messages. Former administrator Lisa Jackson was hammered for using alias email accounts, including one under the name "Richard Windsor."

And last summer, the EPA was grilled over missing emails from an official involved in a controversy over the agency's opposition to a gold-and-copper mine in Alaska.