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EPA held in contempt for destroying computer records

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information    

EPA held in contempt for destroying computer records

  • The EPA must pay legal bills of the Landmark organization’s successful lawsuit to hold the agency in contempt erasing computer information after a federal judge had ordered the information retained.

July 28, 2003 — U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth in Washington, D.C., cited the Environmental Protection Agency for “contumacious conduct” and held it in contempt of court July 24 for destroying computer files of the former director and others that were the subject of a Freedom of Information Act request filed in September by Landmark Legal Foundation’s Herndon, Va., office.

On Jan. 19, 2001, the last day the Clinton administration held office, Lamberth ordered EPA electronic records retained so that the agency could respond to a pending FOI proceeding for them.

The contempt order forces the agency to pay Landmark’s attorneys fees and court costs it incurred in asking the judge to find the agency in contempt. A July 25 Washington Post article estimated that will cost EPA tens of thousands of dollars.

Lamberth did not, however, find any of the individuals in contempt of court as Landmark had sought. He wrote that counsel representing EPA did not forward his order to exiting political employees and they cleaned off their computers as they departed. For that and a variety of other reasons, Lamberth wrote that the court would “practice restraint” in its contempt findings.

Former EPA administrator Carol Browner was working her last day at the agency when Lamberth issued the injunction to prohibit the computer records destruction. She said in testimony that she rarely used her computer and was especially concerned that several computer games her son used be deleted.

Lamberth also did not hold the U.S. Attorney’s Office in contempt but sharply criticized its failure to let the retiring officials have a copy of the order until it had been requested at least three times. That failing did not breach his order, however, which required only that records not be destroyed.

Because EPA did not receive the order for several days, it reformatted hard drives and erased and reused e-mail backup tapes.

Landmark describes itself as a nonprofit organization providing litigation and legal aid on behalf of conservatives and conservative causes. Its offices are in Herndon and Kansas City, Mo.

(Landmark Legal Foundation v. EPA) RD

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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