Last week, we reported that Obama administration Deputy CTO Andrew McLaughlin -who headed up Google’s lobbying shop before joining the administration – had been ensnared in the Google Buzz privacy imbroglio when his Gmail contacts were made publicly available through his Google Buzz profile…and they revealed that McLaughlin’s most emailed Gmail contacts included more than two-dozen Google employees, including many of the company’s most senior lobbyists and lawyers.
Now, Consumer Watchdog has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the White House to obtain all e-mails and Buzz correspondence between Deputy CTO Andrew McLaughlin and his former employer, Google.
McLaughlin’s Google Buzz account also included correspondence directly to the Google Buzz development team soon after the launch of the service inquiring about how he could communicate privately with his Gmail contacts on Buzz. In one enlightening post, McLaughlin inquired:
“How do I delete or block followers? There are a bunch of random people showing up whom I don’t know, and who I don’t want to read my Buzz items.”
As we pointed out, none of this suggests impropriety on the part of McLaughlin per se. It’s not necessarily unreasonable for McLaughlin to be communicating with his former friends and colleagues at Google, although it does seem odd that McLaughlin (a senior White House official) made repeated inquiries of the Google Buzz development team about how he could communicate with his Gmail contacts, many of whom are Google lobbyists and lawyers, privately over Buzz.
But now, we have discovered something that is now certain to raise additional questions. Apparently, McLaughlin’s entire Buzz account has now been deleted, as the screen shots below indicate.
A Google search for “Buzz by Andrew McLaughlin” returned a series of links last night to McLaughlin’s Buzz posts.
But clicking on those links now returns the following Google error page:
And, whereas a search for Andrew McLaughlin’s profile on Google Buzz used to return this:
A search of his profile now returns this:
Nothing to see. Move along…
All of this raises new and potentially troubling questions about Presidential recordkeeping in a new age of social media. How, for instance, is this Administration complying (and how will future Administration’s comply) with the Presidential Records Act in a new age of Twitter, Facebook and Google Buzz. And when White House employees can quickly delete such accounts, what are the implications for recordkeeping and the archival of communications by senior government officials.
Many will recall the Bush White House email controversy in 2007. Congressional requests for administration documents around the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys revealed that many emails were not available because they were sent through non-government domains not controlled by the federal government. It was argued then that conducting government business this way was a possible violation of not only the Presidential Records Act of 1978, but also the Hatch Act.
Intriguingly, in response to the FOIA request by Consumer Watchdog, a White House spokesman has announced that the McLaughlin Gmail’s are not subject to FOIA.
For an administration that positions itself as the most open and transparent in history, and which promised to stay above the influence of corporate lobbyists, this is all beginning to look quite interesting.
The deletion of McLaughlin’s Buzz account coming on the heels of yesterday’s FOIA request raises the stakes considerably. Did McLaughlin delete his Google Buzz account, or was it deleted by Google? Did McLaughlin call or email someone at Google to delete the Google Buzz records? Did he communicate with the Google Buzz team directly? Did McLaughlin talk with White House counsel about this, or did he just delete the account on his own?
As they say, it’s not the original offense, it’s the cover up. While we’ve been careful not to suggest that any of this rises to the level of impropriety without further evidence, McLaughlin’s vanishing Buzz account after a FOIA request for those same records is going to raise eyebrows. Government ethics rules require that government officials conduct themselves in a manner that doesn’t even create the perception of any conflicts of interest.
The deletion of McLaughlin’s Google Buzz account appears to create a real perception problem that needs to be addressed to ensure the integrity of the process and the office.
Stay tuned. Much more to follow.