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EPA in Contempt for Destroying Files

July 25, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A federal judge held the Environmental Protection Agency in contempt Thursday for destroying former EPA chief Carol Browner’s computer files, which were being sought by a conservative legal foundation.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ruled the EPA should be held in civil contempt and pay the Landmark Legal Foundation’s legal fees and costs because the agency disobeyed his order to preserve the electronic records. The judge ordered the sanctions because he said the EPA had shown ``contumacious conduct″ _ obstinate resistance to authority.

But Lamberth also ruled in the EPA’s favor to essentially put the underlying issue in the case to rest, saying the agency had done all it could to search for and produce all the documents it possessed after some of them were destroyed.

Landmark also wanted Lamberth to hold Browner, two other EPA officials and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in contempt, but the judge disagreed because he said they didn’t have advance notice of his court order.

No one at the EPA or Landmark was immediately available for comment Thursday. Browner’s attorney, Robert Trout, said his client had merely wanted to ensure her work computer was appropriately formatted for her successor in the Bush administration.

``We’re pleased with Judge Lamberth’s decision,″ Trout said. ``As we’ve made clear from the outset, and as the facts plainly showed, there was never any basis whatsoever for Landmark’s motion for contempt as to Ms. Browner.″

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the foundation in September 2000 sought documents about the EPA’s contacts with outside groups during the last months of the Clinton administration.

Lamberth issued a protective order on Jan. 19, 2001, the day before the Clinton administration ended, instructing the EPA to preserve all documents that might be relevant to the request by Landmark.

``Despite the court’s order, the hard drives of several EPA officials were reformatted, e-mail backup tapes were erased and reused, and individuals deleted e-mails received after that date,″ Lamberth wrote.

Browner had testified she asked a technician to delete her computer files the same day Lamberth ordered them preserved. But the former EPA administrator said she usually didn’t use her computer for work or e-mail, hadn’t been notified about the court order, and had just wanted to remove some computer games her son had installed on her work computer.

Early on during the Bush administration, the EPA acknowledged it had wiped clean the computer files from Browner and other top staff despite Lamberth’s order. The agency disclosed that in February and March 2001, the computer hard drives of several Clinton-era EPA officials had been reformatted, and between Jan. 19 and late April 2001, the e-mail backup tapes for their work computers _ which are normally preserved for 90 days _ had been erased and reused.

``These hard drive reformattings and e-mail backup tape erasures were contumacious. EPA does not dispute that they occurred. Therefore, EPA acted in contempt of the court’s order,″ Lamberth wrote.

Lamberth noted the EPA had made some ``too-little too-late efforts″ to obey his order, including an EPA inspector general’s investigation that succeeded in recovering some material from the reformatted hard drives. But the judge said a contempt finding was appropriate to show wrongdoing and prevent similar behavior in the future.


On the Net:

Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov

Landmark Legal Foundation: http://www.landmarklegal.org

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