Two federal agencies “losing” subpoenaed documents in major investigations may not exactly be a trend–but it certainly doesn’t look good. Today, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) presented the House Oversight Committee with disturbing news that some subpoenaed documents in the Congressional investigation of HealthCare.gov “might not be retrievable.”
This revelation comes on the heels of the Internal Revenue Service’s recent disclosure that it lost emails in the Congressional investigation of the tax agency’s targeting of conservative nonprofits.
The HHS emails in question were subpoenaed more than nine months ago. The ones that HHS says may be missing belong to a key official regarding implementation and oversight of HealthCare.gov’s disastrous launch: Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) administrator Marilyn Tavenner.
Coincidentally, the potentially missing emails were generated during the time period prior to, and during, the launch October 2013 month of HealthCare.gov. HHS says that during this crucial time period, Tavenner failed to maintain her own copies of various emails in order “to keep an orderly email box and to stay within the agency’s email system capacity limits.” This continued, says HHS, until November 2013: immediately after a Congressional subpoena for the earlier material was issued.
In a statement today, Oversight chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) stated,
“Today’s news that a senior HHS executive destroyed emails relevant to a congressional investigation means that the Obama Administration has lost or destroyed emails for more than 20 witnesses, and in each case, the loss wasn’t disclosed to the National Archives or Congress for months or years, in violation of federal law.”
Issa goes on to say, “It defies logic that so many senior Administration officials were found to have ignored federal recordkeeping requirements only after Congress asked to see their emails. Just this week, my staff followed up with HHS, who has failed to comply with a subpoena from ten months ago. Even at that point, the administration did not inform us that there was a problem with Ms. Tavenner’s email history. Yet again, we discover that this Administration will not be forthright with the American people unless cornered.”
In its letter, HHS Assistant Secretary for Legislation Jim Esquea assured members of Congress
“Please know that at HHS we understand an take seriously the importance of managing the disposition of all records in accordance with the applicable federal records management requirements and policies.”
HHS also stated that it is taking steps to strengthen its existing processes by “reminding all employees and contractors” of the requirements relating to records maintenance. The agency says that, like the IRS, it is trying to retrieve the missing documents by searching through HHS records since most of her emails were sent internally.
HHS also stated that it doesn’t believe it needs to report the records issue to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) but that it did so yesterday “out of an abundance of caution.”