What doesn't Carol Browner want us to know about her zealously activist reign at the Environmental Protection Agency?
Six months ago, on her last day in office, Bill Clinton's former eco-chief oversaw the destruction of her computer files -- in clear violation of a judge's order requiring the agency to preserve its records. According to recently released testimony in a freedom of information lawsuit filed against EPA by the Landmark Legal Foundation, Browner told a computer technician: "I would like my files deleted. I want you to delete my files."
Browner -- the brainy, detail-oriented, high-powered, have-it-all, do-it-all, know-it-all career attorney -- says she didn't know about the court injunction signed in the morning by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth on the same day she had her hard drive wiped clean.
Let us suspend disbelief for a moment and take this polished lawyer at her word. Even assuming that Browner had not been informed of the court's protective order, she certainly knew it might be coming. Just two days before the order was issued, her agency filed a motion opposing the injunction. When it was issued, one of Browner's public records specialists was in the courtroom. She notified two of Browner's top legal deputies after the hearing.
Even if Browner were ignorant of these proceedings when she had her computer zapped, she was certainly cognizant of Landmark's lawsuit against her agency.
The Virginia-based government watchdog group, seeking full public disclosure of the names of any special interest groups that may have influenced Browner's wave of last-minute regulatory actions, had taken EPA to court in the fall of 2000. An administrator with nothing to hide would have bent over backwards to protect all her records, no matter how trivial, until the end of her tenure. But Browner, who boasted at the National Press Club last fall that "One of the things I'm the proudest of at EPA is the work we've done to expand the public's right to know," apparently didn't hesitate to erase wholesale the electronic documents on her desktop computer.
And she wasn't forthcoming about that, either.
Not until three months after Browner left office did the government admit that a) Browner had ordered her hard drive erased; b) three other top EPA bureaucrats also had their computers erased despite Judge Lamberth's court injunction; and c) the EPA had failed to search Browner's office for public documents as required by Landmark's lawsuit.
Wait, it gets worse.
In sworn testimony two weeks ago, Browner came up with two more excuses for her obstructionist behavior with regard to Landmark's lawsuit. First: It doesn't matter that she failed to comply with the court order because she didn't keep anything important on her computer, anyway. Browner, a modern professional woman in public service for more than a decade, painted herself as a computer idiot. "I did not know how to use a computer with any great skill. I am not computer literate. I did not use e-mail. I did not send e-mail, I did not know how to access e-mail at EPA. I didn't know that I had an e-mail address," she testified.
Coming from a crusader for greater Internet access to EPA's databases and modernization of the agency's e-mail system (who also testified that she was comfortable using Expedia, the online travel service, and playing the Microsoft game Free Cell with her son), this claim of e-ignorance strains credulity.
Second, Browner asserts that she ordered her hard drive expunged as a mere "courtesy" to the Bush administration. Her son had loaded computer games onto her desktop. Browner nobly noted: "It didn't seem appropriate to leave behind a computer with kids' games." Such a stickler for ethical details, but it doesn't seem to have occurred to Browner that it might not be "appropriate" to have her kid load games on her central government computer in the first place.
Someone was playing games at EPA all right. It wasn't just Browner's little boy.