Trump Administration Admits Ross Broke Federal Law When Using Personal Email for Government Business

Court Says Commerce Department’s Refusal to Search Ross’ Personal Email Account Was Not Justified

Washington, D.C. — Late Wednesday, in response to a Democracy Forward lawsuit, a federal court rejected the Trump administration’s effort to shield Secretary Ross’ illicit use of personal email to conduct agency business. After the Trump administration conceded that Secretary Ross failed to follow federal law on multiple occasions, the Court ruled it was unreasonable that the Commerce Department excluded Secretary Ross’ personal email account from its search for records.

In its ruling, the Court stated: “Commerce acknowledges that the Secretary used his primary personal email account for official business without complying with federal recordkeeping requirements. Yet it limited its search only to official email accounts of the Secretary and other Commerce employees.” That, the Court ruled, is insufficient. “Commerce’s search,” the Court determined, “was not ‘reasonably calculated’ to uncover all relevant documents.”

In response to the ruling, Democracy Forward Senior Counsel Jeffrey Dubner said:

This decision is a victory for transparency and accountability in government. Secretary Ross repeatedly violated federal law with his use of private email for official agency business. Now, the public will get a more complete picture of just how extensive Secretary Ross’ already substantial use of private email has been. The Trump administration can no longer hide Secretary Ross’ illicit email activity.

After Democracy Forward’s efforts revealed that Secretary Ross failed to comply with federal recordkeeping requirements on a number of occasions, in October of last year, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) launched an official investigation into Secretary Ross’ use of private email. According to NARA’s website, the investigation is ongoing.

To date, Democracy Forward’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) investigation has revealed that Secretary Ross received or sent at least 230 work-related emails from his personal email account. Among other things, these emails include:

  • Correspondence with numerous domestic and foreign corporations with business before the Department of Commerce
  • Discussions of meetings with numerous foreign officials, lobbyists, and CEOs
  • Correspondence with Holocaust denier Chuck Johnson
  • Correspondence with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich about Republican Party donors interested in investment opportunities
  • Emails from Ambassador — and later Acting Director of National Intelligence — Richard Grenell about meetings with foreign manufacturers

Federal law requires all federal officers to copy or forward to their official email account every government-related email they send from private email accounts. The Commerce Department’s search for records in response to Democracy Forward’s suit was, as the Court has now found, inadequate.

Once the initial search revealed that Secretary Ross had used a private email account to conduct agency business, the Commerce Department was obligated to conduct a search of Ross’ private email accounts. After the Department refused, Democracy Forward brought suit, leading to a July 14, 2020 hearing and the July 22, 2020 order.

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Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy areas, represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.

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