High-level administration employees use private emails to keep their inboxes from being overwhelmed by messages, and they say they need to maintain those addresses to do their jobs efficiently. But when the Associated Press filed FOIA requests for Department of Labor and Health and Human Services emails, the response was unexpected and possibly illegal.
The AP said the Labor Department asked for just over $1.03 million to do the work necessary to pull the requested files, 2,236 computer backup tapes from archives, and for 50 people to go through the old records.
The costs, they said, would cover three weeks of work to identify the tapes and ship them.
The idea is that communications between government officials must be a matter of public record. There are certain limits to the scope of FOIA requests -- if gathering the requested information becomes unreasonably burdensome, the government can, in some cases, refuse to release the records -- but fees such as the one the Department of Labor tried to extract in this instance is against the law.
Agencies that keep private emails said that, while the addresses are not made public, the content of those emails is searched in official investigations and records are turned over when requested.
Labor eventually reneged on the request for a fee, and Health and Human Services turned over all three of Secretary Kathleen Sebelius's email addresses.
The AP ignored a request not to disclose Sebelius's private address -- KGS2(at)hhs.gov -- siting her integral role in the operations of Medicare and Medicaid and the implementation of the Affordable Health Care Act.
In addition to the Labor and Health and Human Services Departments, requests have been filed, but not yet answered for ten other agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency, the Pentagon, the departments of Veterans Affairs, Transportation, Treasure, Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Homeland Security, Commerce and Agriculture.