WASHINGTON (AP) -- To whom? ToWhit? Tofu?
Senators sidetracked their confirmation hearing Thursday for Gina McCarthy, President Barack Obama's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, to discuss secret government email addresses that have been used by senior EPA officials for at least a decade. The agency's inspector general is investigating Republican charges that the secret accounts — discovered in 2012 — have been used to hide sensitive matters from Congress in its oversight role and the public under the Freedom of Information Act.
Although discussions about the propriety of the secret EPA email accounts have raged in Washington for months, McCarthy told senators that she was unfamiliar with the EPA's policy to use the accounts. Under questioning, she said she had never used a private, non-government email account to conduct EPA business, and the agency said McCarthy has not used one of the secret EPA addresses, either. The secondary accounts are reserved for administrators.
"I am just unfamiliar with the policy you are reading from, but I will certainly be happy to familiarize myself with it," McCarthy said.
The hearing represented the only occasion for senators to ask McCarthy questions publicly before the Senate votes on her nomination to run the agency.
Former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson's secret email alias was "Richard Windsor." Jackson has said the account was used to communicate internally with EPA colleagues to distinguish those messages from the deluge of emails sent every day to her official EPA account from environmentalists, companies, organizations and others. The EPA has said that whenever it provided copies of Jackson's emails to Congress or to citizens under the Freedom of Information Act, it provided emails from both accounts, including the secret "Windsor" one.
An EPA official said Thursday that acting administrator Bob Perciasepe also has a secondary account, but it is similar to his name.
Seeking to defuse the debate, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said at the hearing that EPA officials under the George W. Bush administration also used secret accounts. According to Boxer:
—President George W. Bush's first EPA chief, Christine Todd Whitman, used the address "ToWhit."
—Former deputy administrator and acting administrator Marcus Peacock used a secret alias "Tofu."
—Bush's second EPA administrator, Stephen Johnson, used "ToCarter."
—Marianne Horinko, the acting administrator for five months in 2003, used "ToDuke."
"All of them have used it," Boxer said. "I don't think it is anything nefarious."
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said Jackson's secondary email account differed from the agency's practice since the 1990s because it didn't begin with "To" and did not obviously identify her actual name when she sent emails from it. That practice was described in a 2008 memo from the agency's records officer to the National Archives and Records Administration about the "possible unauthorized destruction" of emails from secondary accounts. The EPA determined that there were possible lost emails from the alias account of Michael Leavitt, the administrator from 2003 to 2005.
The secret email accounts were publicly revealed last fall by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think-tank that was tipped off about Jackson's alias by a source and later noticed it in documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The EPA said its policy was to disclose in such documents that "Richard Windsor" was actually the EPA administrator, but Barrasso said he has printouts of emails between Windsor and McCarthy in which Windsor is not identified as Jackson.
At least one lawmaker, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., made light of Jackson's moniker.
"Richard Windsor, that sounds pretty monarchist. Now, a lot of folks would say that is appropriate for EPA," Vitter said, "but I personally vote for tofu. I think that is more on the mark."
Follow Dina Cappiello's environment coverage on Twitter (at)dinacappiello