WASHINGTON – White House said Wednesday it had mishandled Republican Party-sponsored e-mail accounts used by nearly two dozen presidential aides, resulting in the loss of an undetermined number of e-mails concerning official White House business.
Congressional investigators looking into the administration's firing of eight federal prosecutors already had the nongovernmental e-mail accounts in their sights because some White House aides used them to help plan the U.S. attorneys' ouster. Democrats were questioning whether the use of the GOP-provided e-mail accounts was proof that the firings were political.
Democrats also have been asking if White House officials are purposely conducting sensitive official presidential business via nongovernmental accounts to get around a law requiring preservation — and eventual disclosure — of presidential records. The announcement of the lost e-mails — a rare admission of error from the Bush White House at a delicate time for the administration's relations with Democratically controlled Capitol Hill — gave new fodder for inquiry on this front.
"This sounds like the administration's version of the dog ate my homework," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "I am deeply disturbed that just when this administration is finally subjected to meaningful oversight, it cannot produce the necessary information."
The Republican National Committee set up the accounts for about 20 Bush aides, such as Karl Rove and his deputies, who get involved in politics, spokesman Scott Stanzel said. Having the GOP create non-White House addresses and provide separate BlackBerries, laptops and other communications gear was designed to avoid running afoul of Hatch Act rules barring federal employees from engaging in political activities with government resources or on government time, he said.
Under President Clinton, White House aides used separate equipment for political spadework but did not have separate accounts.
"This is entirely appropriate," Stanzel said of the Bush White House practice.
He said staffers used their RNC accounts instead of White House accounts to discuss the prosecutor issue or conduct other official business for several reasons, including extra caution about complying with the Hatch Act as well as the convenience of using one account instead of several. Stanzel said he could not speak to whether anyone was intentionally trying to avoid White House archiving because he had not spoken to all those involved.
Stanzel said some e-mails have been lost because the White House lacked clear policies on complying with Presidential Records Act requirements.
Before 2004, for instance, e-mails to and from the accounts were typically automatically deleted every 30 days along with all other RNC e-mails. Even though that was changed in 2004, so that the White House staffers with those accounts were excluded from the RNC's automatic deletion policy, some of their e-mails were lost anyway when individual aides deleted their own files, Stanzel said.
He could not say what had been lost, and said the White House is working to recover as many as they can. The White House has now shut off employees' ability to delete e-mails on the separate accounts, and is briefing staffers on how to better make determinations about when — and when not — to use them, Stanzel said.
The disclosure could complicate a standoff between the White House and congressional Democrats over the fired prosecutors.
The White House had promised to look through its staffers' e-mails for anything relevant to the prosecutors' dismissal. No matter the domain name, it said it would provide documents to the Senate and House Judiciary committees as long as they are not internal communications, but exchanges with people outside the White House.
But the White House also had insisted that this offer of documents be accepted, all-or-nothing, along with its insistence that aides would talk to Congress about the firings, but not under oath. So far, Democrats have refused.
Democrats have begun highlighting the separate accounts because they say their use appears to go beyond the strictly political.
"We have become increasingly sensitized over the last several days to the White House staff wearing several 'hats' and using Republican National Committee and campaign e-mail addresses," said a letter from the Senate and House Judiciary chairmen to White House counsel Fred Fielding on March 28. "We hope you agree that such sleight of hand should not be used to circumvent and compromise the comprehensiveness of our investigation."
The nongovernmental accounts were accidentally discovered by Democrats when the Justice Department released hundreds of documents related to the prosecutor firings.
One exchange showed deputy White House political director J. Scott Jennings sending an e-mail titled "USATTY" to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' then-chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, from an address with a gwb43.com domain name.
"Does a list of all vacant, or about to be vacant, US Attorney slots exist anywhere?" Jennings wrote on Dec. 3 from his political account. Replied Sampson, a few minutes later: "My office. Want me to send to you tomorrow?"
Jennings had also communicated with Sampson and other Justice Department officials in August from his RNC-supplied address about how to install the administration's preferred replacement, onetime Rove aide Tim Griffin, for Arkansas U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins.
In one, Jennings passed on a strategy he said was suggested by Cummins, to have Griffin come on as an attorney in the Little Rock office until Cummins finalized his post-government plans. Jennings said the plan would "alleviate pressure/implication that Tim forced Bud out."
Sampson's e-mails all appeared to be from his official usdoj.gov account.
The separate e-mail accounts also have become an issue in the case of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was convicted on bribery charges and is in prison for fraud.
Abramoff had several exchanges with Susan Ralston, then a Rove assistant, via nongovernment e-mail addresses with domain names like rnchq.org and georgewbush.com, to discuss issues in the Interior Department affecting the lobbyist's Indian clients.