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Inside Politics

White House unofficial e-mail accounts draw scrutiny

Story Highlights

• White House allegedly used unofficial e-mail accounts for official business
• Rep. Henry Waxman says those e-mails are subject to Presidential Records Act
• White House says outside accounts keep political work separate from official business
From Bob Franken
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House is being accused of improperly trying to hide e-mails about government business by using unofficial e-mail accounts.

Congressional investigators say they found communications on one account from top White House aides about official matters, like the December firings of eight U.S. attorneys.

Those e-mails were discovered on a Republican National Committee e-mail domain called That domain is not part of the official White House communication system.

The Presidential Records Act, passed during the Nixon administration, requires the preservation of all official records of and about the president.

A White House spokesman defended the use of outside e-mail accounts as an appropriate method of separating official business from political campaign work.

But the use of those accounts by officials discussing the firings -- and one from now-imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- have led a liberal watchdog group to accuse administration of trying to skirt the law governing preservation of presidential records.

"They wanted to make sure that no record could ever be found of what they were really up to in the White House," Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told CNN.

Rep. Henry Waxman, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has sent letters to the RNC and the former head of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, arguing that outside e-mails are subject to the act.

In March, Waxman notified those groups that congressional investigators "have uncovered evidence that White House staff have used non-governmental e-mail accounts to conduct official government business," and called on them to preserve those records.

White House political advisers used the outside e-mails to discuss the December firings of federal prosecutors in eight cities, a shake-up that has led to a firestorm on Capitol Hill, documents released amid the flap have shown.

Waxman's committee released another chain of e-mails it said illustrated the type of exchange taking place on the account. The e-mails began with a February 2003 message from Abramoff to Susan Ralston, the former executive assistant to President Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove.

In the chain, Abramoff advised Ralston that an upcoming Interior Department gaming compact with a Louisiana Indian tribe would be "an anathema to our supporters down there."

When an associate notified him that his e-mail had been forwarded to another White House aide, Abramoff replied, "Dammit. It was sent to Susan on her RNC pager and was not supposed to go into the WH (White House) system."

Abramoff pleaded guilty to corruption charges in January 2006 in a wide-ranging Capitol Hill influence-peddling probe that has led to guilty pleas from several former congressional staffers and Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio. Ralston resigned in October out of concern that her ties to Abramoff would be "a distraction," the White House said.

Neither administration officials nor Republican Party officials would agree to be interviewed on camera after repeated requests from CNN. In a written statement, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said staffers used different computers "to have a separate e-mail account for political activities."

Stanzel said that procedure was modeled on "the historical practice of previous administrations." But John Podesta, who served as White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, disputed that.

"It doesn't appear that they were doing what we did, which was to segregate political activity from official activity," he said.

Rep. Henry Waxman says outside e-mails are subject to the Presidential Records Act and should be preserved.

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