An email obtained by Congress shows the top official for Healthcare.gov at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under the Department of Health and Human Services, Marilyn Tavenner, instructed the agency’s top spokesman to “Please delete this email.”
The instruction appears significant for several reasons: First, the email to be deleted included an exchange between key White House officials and CMS officials. Second, the email was dated October 5, 2013, five days into the disastrous launch of HealthCare.gov. Third, federal law requires federal officials to retain copies of –not delete– email exchanges. And fourth, the document to be deleted is covered under Congressional subpoena as well as longstanding Freedom of Information requests made by members of the media (including me).
In a letter today, House Energy and Commerce leaders asked Tavenner to explain why she asked her colleague to delete the email, and the letter questions whether there are other instances in which she instructed HHS staff to delete emails. The letter also asks for more details regarding Congressional subpoenaed documents, including Tavenner emails, that CMS recently said might be permanently lost; and it requests an explanation as to why redactions are made in some documents provided to Congress so far.
The meaning of the Tavenner email that she wanted deleted, and the reason why she issued the instruction, isn’t clear. Those copied on the email exchange to be deleted include: Jeanne Lambrew, Obama’s Director of the White House Office of Health Reform. Previously, emails obtained by the House Oversight Committee indicated Lambrew exchanged confidential taxpayer information on organizations with IRS official Sarah Hall Ingram and White House health policy advisor Ellen Montz. White House visitor logs indicate that Lambrew also hosted the vast majority of Ingram’s 165 White House visits. The IRS has been found by independent overseers to have improperly targeted and harassed conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. (Incidentally, the IRS has notified Congress that, like HHS, it has “lost” emails responsive to Congressional subpoena).
Other names included on the email to be deleted are: White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, White House advisor on health care Christopher Jennings, and other HHS and CMS officials.
“[N]ow we know that when HealthCare.gov was crashing, those in charge were hitting the delete button behind the scenes,” said Energy and Commerce chairman Fred Upton (R-MI).
Last week, I sued HHS over its lack of response to my FOI requests regarding HealthCare.gov. Federal officials routinely fail to comply with FOI law. The conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch is assisting with the lawsuit. Judicial Watch has had success in its FOI lawsuits against both the Bush and Obama administrations.
There appears to be no down side for federal officials when they flout FOI law to delay and obfuscate. Even in the relatively rare instances in which they are sued, they pay the legal bills with your tax dollars.