Whistleblowers: HHS instant messages circumvent recordkeeping laws

Whistleblowers claim that political appointees in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services are violating transparency rules by communicating with career employees via instant message. Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight Chairman Charles Boustany Jr., M.D. (R-La.) sent a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking for a response to what is "ostensibly ... an effort to circumvent recordkeeping laws."

Under the Federal Records Act, federal agencies must preserve all records and communications connected with public business, which can only be destroyed under certain circumstances. These requirements are supposed to be applied to modern forms of communication, such as electronic mail, instant messaging and mobile-to-mobile text messages, the letter notes. 

"Though these rules were written in the time of typewriters, they continue to apply in a time of electronic mail and instant messaging, improvements in technology that have offered government employees faster and more efficient methods of communication," the letter states.

At press time, Sebelius had not yet issued a response. But it's possible the instant messages are part of the office's permanent communications records, as the text of instant message conversations--like email messages--can be logged and archived.

"It is vital that all government agencies develop and implement electronic recordkeeping policies so messages used to conduct official business can be made part of the government's archive," Boustany said in a statement. "Many HHS political appointees are managing the implementation of ObamaCare and the numerous rules and regulations contained within it. Their discussions must be preserved, whatever the medium used, and any failure to archive these messages impedes Congress's duty to conduct government oversight."

Although the letter only refers to "political appointees" sending the IMs and does not claim Sebelius as using IMs to communicate, it is not the first time this year that the committee has sent her a chastising letter.

In October, the Republican leaders threatened to subpoena HHS three times in two weeks for information about how the agency is using taxpayer dollars to promote the health reform law in what it called a "big guerilla campaign splash."

In November, Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee delivered on a threat to subpoena Sebelius as they investigate the alleged PR campaign that touted the benefits of Affordable Care Act.

And in September, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel accused Sebelius of violating federal law by using her position to influence the election. In that case, Sebelius admitted and apologized for the "mistake" and has since met with ethics experts to prevent future Hatch Act violations.

To learn more:
- read the letter (.pdf)
- here's a text version
- read the statement

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