Meadows bill puts teeth in records enforcement

In a newly introduced bill, the chairman of a key government oversight subcommittee seeks to punish feds who destroy records and to enshrine existing records policy in law.

file folders on a background with binary code

On July 11, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) introduced the Federal Records Modernization Act of 2016, which would institute suspension and firing as punishment for federal employees who destroy records.

Federal records are in the news as a result of the furor surrounding presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's decision not to use a government email server to conduct agency business when she was secretary of State. Clinton was not charged after an investigation into classified material on her home-based email server, but lawmakers have concerns about the safeguarding of federal records for preservation and access under open-government laws.

Even before Clinton's email practices came to light, Congress had updated federal records law to require feds who use private accounts for official business to copy messages to official accounts or forward copies of communications to official accounts within 20 days of their receipt.

Meadows' legislation would require agencies to suspend, review and terminate federal employees who "willfully and wrongfully" falsify or delete federal records. Violations of the 20-day requirement, which is reprised in the Meadows measure, would also trigger adverse actions, including suspension and termination.

If an agency head or the U.S. archivist believes records have been taken from an agency illicitly, they would be obligated to work with the attorney general to retrieve the records.

Additionally, the bill specifies that officials at an affected agency or the National Archives and Records Administration identify records that have been lost or destroyed or those that are at risk of being lost or destroyed.

Meadows, chairman of the Government Operations Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, also wants to see several recent NARA policies enshrined in law. Therefore, the bill calls for agencies to identify certain top accounts for mandatory retention and preservation. Those positions include top leaders, office directors, commissioners, program office heads, confidential assistants, staff assistants and others that seem likely to produce federal records. The legislative language tracks closely with NARA's Capstone policy.

The bill also puts legislative muscle behind the requirement in President Barack Obama's 2012 executive order that each agency designate a senior official tasked with oversight of records management practices. Meadows' bill would require the official to be at the assistant secretary level.

NARA currently tracks those senior officials, usually agency CIOs, across government, but because of irregular updates, as of July 12 its list included Office of Personnel Management CIO Donna Seymour, who quit federal service in February.

Meadows' legislation would also require the comptroller general to send biennial reports to Congress on federal email management.