Watchdog Exposes IRS Record Management Failures

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (“TIGTA”) released an important report yesterday that detailed the Internal Revenue Service’s (“IRS”) inconsistent and inadequate records retention policies over recent years. The audit had been requested in March 2016 by the House Committee on Ways and Means.  TIGTA, the IRS’s watchdog, concluded that the agency had failed to “comply with certain Federal requirements that agencies must ensure that all records are retrievable and usable for as long as needed.”  In other words, TIGTA took the IRS to task for having ignored the requirements of the Federal Records Act (“FRA”) and the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”).

Consider some highlights from the report:

  • “The IRS’s current e-mail system and record retention policies do not ensure that e-mail records are saved and can be searched[.]”
  • “[R]epeated changes in electronic media storage policies, combined with a reliance on employees to maintain records on computer hard drives, has resulted in cases in which Federal records were lost or unintentionally destroyed.”
  • “Interim actions taken by the IRS while developing an upgraded e-mail solution do not prevent loss of e-mail records.”
  • The IRS’s “interim e-mail archiving policy for executives” was “not implemented effectively because some executives”—including four members of the Senior Executive Team—did not properly configure their e-mail accounts . . . and the IRS did not have an authoritative list of all executives required to comply with the interim policy.”
  • “Policies requiring the IRS to document search efforts [under the FOIA] were not followed for some cases.”
  • “The IRS does not have a consistent policy to search for records from separated employees.”

TIGTA’s report offers countless examples of how not to comply with federal law.  Yet none of the details are terribly unexpected.  Ever since the Lois Lerner Tea Party targeting scandal broke in 2013, the IRS has been grilled for its shoddy records management.  Cause of Action Institute’s oversight of the agency revealed, for example, that the IRS used to delete BlackBerry messages after only fourteen (14) days because of “routine system housekeeping” and “spacing constraints.” More egregiously, the IRS intentionally failed to capture, preserve, or retain instant messages created on its Microsoft Office Communications Server (“OCS”) platform because of a contractual agreement with the National Treasury Employees Union.  That “memorandum of understanding” sought to “enhance employee work environments and allow employees to more effectively and efficiently collaborate with their colleagues.”  In other words, the IRS had no systemic means of assuring that employees’ communications on OCS were not records subject to the FRA or the FOIA and, if they were, that they were appropriately retained and retrievable.  Our lawsuit against the IRS helped push the agency to implement a new records management system for text and instant messages in line with the requirements of the law.  Unfortunately, as the TIGTA report demonstrates, the agency still falls short with respect to its management of email records.

It is also unsurprising—but still deeply troubling—that TIGTA concluded the IRS “did not consistently ensure that potentially responsive records” were identified, searched, and produced in response to FOIA requests. CoA Institute frequently litigates with the IRS over requests that go unanswered for months.  The fight usually boils down to a disagreement over the adequacy of the agency’s search.  Regrettably, courts give agencies a great deal of deference in justifying the reasonableness of their searches, even when a declarant fails to provide sufficiently specific information about how a search was conducted.  In some of our cases, IRS FOIA officers have merely asked senior employees whether potentially responsive records exist and then called it a day.  That’s unacceptable.  The onus is now on the IRS to make improvements, and it is for Congress and taxpayers to ensure those improvements are made.

Ryan P. Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute

Is NOAA deleting records? CoA Institute sues for important communications about fisheries regulation

In passing the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) and the Federal Records Act, Congress intended for internal agency communications to be logged and, in many cases, retrievable under the FOIA.  Attempts by agencies and officials to evade such transparency violate the core principles of government accountability and recently resulted in a highly publicized scandal that enveloped Secretary Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president.

So in the wake of the Clinton e-mail scandal, have agencies learned their lesson?  For the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”), this doesn’t appear to be the case.  Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) recently submitted multiple FOIA requests for NOAA’s records retention policies and internal communications from the time period surrounding the recent New England Fishery Management Council (“NEFMC”) meetings.  In addition to asking for emails, CoA Institute also requested Google Chat/Google Hangout (“GChat”) records.

Anyone who regularly uses G-Mail is familiar with GChat and its “off the record” feature, which disables message logging.  Unfortunately, a 2012 NOAA memo indicates that NOAA enabled the “off the record” feature agency-wide.  There’s no indication that NOAA is using any other method to log these communications.  This likely violates the Federal Records Act and frustrates public efforts to file FOIA requests seeking to better understand government decision-making.

CoA Institute is interested in the communications between NOAA officials during the recent NEFMC meetings.  These meetings were important because, at their conclusion, the NEFMC voted to adopt an amendment that would extend coverage of “at-sea monitors” on the fishing industry.  This could have devastating effects on the ability of small-boat fishermen to continue to pursue their livelihoods.  This amendment now goes to the Secretary of Commerce for his approval, and it is critical that the public understand the thought process used by NOAA to get this result, which would be revealed by reading its internal communications.

NOAA’s response to CoA Institute’s FOIA request was unusual.  First, it declared the request was non-billable, meaning CoA Institute would not need to pay fees for compiling the information.  This is appropriate given both the public interest in these records and CoA Institute’s status as a news media requester organization.  NOAA later rescinded its non-billable determination and demanded CoA Institute submit more information relevant to the fee waiver request.  CoA Institute did so, but, to date, NOAA has not responded.  In our letter, we express concern with how NOAA is handling this request:

If NOAA is concerned that records responsive to this request will cast the agency in an unflattering light or reveal that its recordkeeping practices are in violation of law, it cannot weaponize fee waivers to prevent disclosure. To do so would not only be a violation of the law, but it would strike a grave blow to transparency.

With today’s lawsuit, NOAA has no choice but to produce the requested records.  If the agency is unable to locate any GChat records because they were improperly deleted, NOAA must publicly admit this, immediately take steps to recover the records, and change its policies for future record retention to comply with the law.

Eric Bolinder is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute.

CoAI Sues NOAA for G-Chat Records Surrounding Controversial Amendment to Expand Industry-Funded At-Sea Monitoring

Unlawful agency directive appears to greenlight concealed communications on internal messaging platform

Washington D.C. –Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) today filed a lawsuit against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) for Google Chat or Hangouts communications from the New England Fishery Management Council’s (“NEFMC”) April 2017 meeting. The suit also seeks internal guidance on retention of Google Chat records on the agency’s internal messaging platform. NOAA failed to respond to two Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests submitted in May for these records.

The records sought by CoA Institute include guidance from NOAA’s Office of General Counsel for the retention of instant messages through the “Google Chat” or “Google Hangouts” feature of NOAA’s internal Unified Messaging System. According to a March 2012 NOAA handbook, employees were instructed that these messages “will be considered ‘off the record’ and will not be recorded in anyway.”

CoA Institute Vice President Julie Smith: “NOAA appears to have created an internal messaging platform to hide records from public disclosure. Any directive to make certain communications be considered ‘off-the-record’ clearly violates transparency laws.  Americans have a right to know how decisions are made that could jeopardize their livelihoods.”

The lawsuit also seeks all communications sent or received by employees of NOAA’s NEFMC who attended the April 18–20, 2017 meeting. During this meeting, the NEFMC approved a controversial amendment to expand the use of industry-funded at-sea monitors to the herring fishery and to prepare for its further expansion through all regional fisheries.

CoA Institute submitted a regulatory comment opposing the so-called Industry-Funded Monitoring Omnibus Amendment due to negative economic impacts that threaten the livelihoods of countless small-business fishermen. The cost for a monitor under the amendment would cost fishermen more than $700 per day at sea.  That would exceed the revenue a fisherman typically lands from his daily catch. The Secretary of Commerce has since commenced a review of the rule for compliance with federal law.

The full complaint is available here.
The two earlier FOIA requests are available here and here.

For information regarding this press release, please contact Zachary Kurz, Director of Communications:


CoA Institute Demands Secretary of State Recover All of Sec. Clinton’s Unlawfully Removed Email Records

Revelation of FBI grand jury subpoenas raises more questions than it answers

Washington D.C. – Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute) filed its opposition to the government’s motion to dismiss a case brought against the Secretary of State and the U.S. Archivist. The lawsuit seeks to compel the defendants to fulfill their legal obligations under the Federal Records Act to initiate action through the Attorney General to recover all of Hillary Clinton’s email records that were unlawfully removed from the State Department.

In December, 2016, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in our favor, overturning an earlier opinion by the District Court that dismissed the case as “moot.” Despite the court’s rebuke, the Secretary of State and U.S. Archivist continue to refuse to perform their statutory obligations to recover Secretary Clinton’s email records by initiating action through the Attorney General.

One new piece of information publicly revealed for the first time in the government’s motion to dismiss was that during its investigation, the FBI issued grand jury subpoenas related to Secretary Clinton’s BlackBerry email accounts. The subpoenas confirm that the FBI investigation of Secretary Clinton was criminal in nature, but details about the scope of the subpoenas remains unknown.

CoA Institute President and CEO John Vecchione: “None of the information provided by the government establishes that the federal records at issue do not exist or cannot be recovered. The government presented fundamentally the same arguments the Court of Appeals already rejected last year. It is the agencies’ statutory duty to institute proceedings through the Attorney General to recover these records. Why the agencies are fighting so hard to avoid this obligation is unexplained.”

In its cross motion filed with its opposition, CoA Institute requests the Court to grant discovery for more information about the grand jury subpoenas that could be essential to the case. The government failed to introduce any evidence to show that the results of those subpoenas establish that Secretary. Clinton’s BlackBerry emails are not recoverable through forensic means.

Read the full pleading here


Senator Grassley Questions FBI Director Comey About Clinton Grand Jury Revelation made in CoA Institute Federal Records Act Litigation

Today, Senator Chuck Grassley questioned FBI Director James Comey about why the FBI revealed the information about the grand jury to us in litigation but refused to release the same information to him in response to congressional oversight.  The video of the hearing is available here; the exchange begins around the 3:09 mark.

As discussed in previous blog posts (here, here, and here), Cause of Action Institute, together with Judical Watch, is litigating a Federal Records Act case to compel the State Department and National Archives and Records Administration to perform their statutory obligations to initiate action through the Attorney General for the complete recovery of email records unlawfully removed from federal custody by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Last week, the government filed a declaration from Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) Special Agent E.W. Priestap, which revealed for the first time that the FBI had obtained grand jury subpoenas related to the Clinton email investigation.  Preistap stated: “The FBI also obtained Grand Jury subpoenas related to the Blackberry e-mail accounts, which produced no responsive materials, as the requested data was outside the retention time utilized by those providers.”

Here’s a transcript of key portions of that exchange:

Senator Chuck Grassley: Last week, the FBI filed a declaration in court pursuant to Freedom of Information Act litigation [ed. actually, it is a Federal Records Act case].  The FBI said that a grand jury issued subpoenas for Secretary Clinton’s emails.  Yet you refuse to tell this Committee whether the FBI sought or had been denied access to grand jury process from the Justice Department.  So, I think a very simple question is why does the FBI give more information to someone who files a lawsuit than to an oversight committee of Congress?  That has happened to me several times.

Director Comey: I’m not sure, Senator, whether that’s what happened here.  But you’re right, I refused to confirm in our hearings as to whether we used a grand jury and how.  I think that’s the right position.  Because I don’t know it well enough, I don’t think I can tell you . . . I don’t think I can distinguish the statements made in the FOIA case, as I sit here.

Senator Chuck Grassley: Just as a matter of proposition then!  If, I, Chuck Grassley as a private citizen file a Freedom of Information Act [request] and you give me more information than you’ll give to Senator Chuck Grassley, how do you justify that?

Director Comey:  Yeah, it’s a good question

Senator Chuck Grassley:  What do you mean it’s a good question?!  How do you justify it?!

Director Comey: It’s a good question, I can’t [justify it] as I sit here.

Senator Chuck Grassley:  Ye gods . . .

. . .

When was the grand jury convened? Was it before your first public statement about closing [the Clinton] case?

Director Comey: I’m still not in a position where I’m comfortable confirming whether and how we used a grand jury . . . in an open setting.  I don’t know enough about what was said in the FOIA case to know whether that makes my answers silly.  But I just want to be so careful about talking about grand jury matters.  So, I’m not going to answer that, sir.

In a word, yes, it does make Director Comey look silly to refuse to confirm the FBI’s use of grand jury subpoenas to Senator Grassley when the FBI has already sworn to the existence of the grand jury in federal court.

This exchange highlights one of the challenges of congressional oversight: agencies often refuse to cooperate with Congress.  That’s where CoA Institute steps in and helps bring transparency to an opaque federal government.

James Valvo is Counsel & Senior Policy Advisor at Cause of Action Institute and you can follow him on Twitter @JamesValvo.

Lawsuit Demands Records on EPA Employees’ Use of Encrypted Messaging App

Washington, D.C. – Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) has filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia after the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) failed to disclose records about its employees’ use of an encrypted messaging application, “Signal,” to discuss the Trump administration’s expected changes to the agency’s policy agenda.

The lawsuit follows a February 2, 2017 Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request, which sought all records of Signal communications created or received by EPA officials, as well as records concerning the EPA’s efforts, if any, to retriever, recover, or retain such work-related correspondence in accordance with federal records management laws.

Cause of Action Institute Assistant Vice President Henry Kerner: “Career employees at the EPA appear to be using Signal to avoid transparency laws and vital oversight by the Executive Branch, Congress, and the public.  Communications on this encrypted application, however, which relate to agency business must still be preserved under the Federal Records Act and be made available for disclosure under the FOIA.  Taxpayers have a right to know if the EPA’s leadership is meeting its record preservation obligations.”

According to media reports, at least a dozen EPA career employees have been using Signal to communicate about work-related issues, including how to prevent President Trump’s political appointees from “undermin[ing] their agency’s mission to protect public health and the environment” or “delet[ing] valuable scientific data.”  CoA Institute’s investigation into this matter has been widely discussed in the press, along with Congress’s request for the EPA’s watchdog to independently investigate the matter.  To date, the EPA has failed to issue a timely determination on CoA Institute’s FOIA request, let alone produce any responsive records.

The full complaint can be found here.

For information regarding this press release, please contact Zachary Kurz, Director of Communications:




Government Obligated to Recover Colin Powell’s Emails

Washington, DC – Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) today filed its opposition to the government’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit to compel Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Archivist David Ferriero to fulfill their statutory obligations to recover former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s work-related email records from a personal account hosted by AOL, Inc.  CoA Institute filed the lawsuit in October 2016 after then-Secretary John Kerry and Archivist Ferriero both failed to act on a CoA Institute Federal Records Act (“FRA”) notice and Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request.

Cause of Action Institute President and CEO John Vecchione: “The law requires an agency or the Archivist to initiate action through the Attorney General to recover unlawfully removed records, especially when initial remedial efforts have failed.  This is a mandatory obligation that cannot be sidestepped.  Whether AOL no longer has Secretary Powell’s email records in its systems is unproven.  More importantly, the government cannot point to any evidence that more intensive, forensic recovery methods—like those employed in the case of Secretary Clinton—might lead to the recovery of these important and historically-vital State Department records.”

In September 2016, the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee held a hearing at which then-Under Secretary of State Patrick Kennedy testified that the State Department had undertaken minimal efforts to retrieve Powell’s work-related email.  After learning that Powell no longer had access to his AOL account or its contents, the State Department merely asked that Powell contact AOL to see if anything could be retrieved.  Despite a request from the National Archives and Records Administration (“NARA”) to contact AOL directly, the State Department never did so.

The government now argues the case should be dismissed because CoA Institute cannot show that involving the Attorney General will result in the recovery of Powell’s email.  That argument is faulty on both the law and the facts.  As to the law, the government confuses the nature of an agency head’s non-discretionary obligation under the FRA, which requires it to initiate action through the Attorney General to recover unlawfully removed records.  This requirement is all the more important when an agency’s or the Archivist’s remedial recovery efforts have proven fruitless.

Though the State Department and NARA exerted minimal effort to recover Powell’s email records, they failed.  Moreover, the government has yet to prove that the Attorney General could not achieve that recovery.  Many State Department officials believed that federal records that had been deleted from Secretary Hillary Clinton’s private email server were unrecoverable, for example, but the FBI retrieved many of those records using forensic techniques.  The same could be done here, assuming AOL cannot in fact access or recover Powell’s records through less intensive means.

Although the government argues that Powell’s email records are no longer in AOL’s system, that allegation depends on unreliable hearsay.  The State Department relies on the representations of Powell’s secretary, but an email uncovered by CoA Institute through FOIA shows that this representative received only vague details about an apparent phone conservation between someone at AOL and a staff member of the House Oversight Committee, during the course of which the unnamed AOL employee indicated that AOL no longer had Powell’s email.  The details of the phone call, the exact content of the representations made, and the reasons for why AOL reached the conclusion it did are all unclear, but even assuming the truth of the claim, it does not speak to the ability of the government to recover Powell’s email through other means.

Cause of Action Institute’s opposition brief can be accessed HERE.