Washington—Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield appears to have violated the Federal Records Act by instructing a CDC employee to destroy an email showing political interference by Trump administration appointees in scientific reports about the coronavirus, according to a letter sent today by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington to the National Archives and Records Administration. In response to the apparent violation, CREW urged NARA to take immediate action to ensure CDC’s compliance with the FRA.
Reports of Redfield’s directive first surfaced in a letter from Representative Jim Clyburn to Redfield and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar. The letter describes an interview with a career CDC official who testified that a Department of Health and Human Services political appointee demanded in an email that CDC alter or rescind truthful scientific reports he believed were damaging to President Trump. The official also testified that she understood that the instruction to delete the email came from Director Redfield.
Willfully destroying federal records is a crime punishable by fines and imprisonment. The FRA requires agencies to promptly report any destruction of federal records to NARA. Because CDC apparently failed to do so here, CREW acted swiftly to report the incident.
“With coronavirus killing nearly 300,000 Americans in less than a year, anything less than full transparency about what the CDC is doing, and how and why they are doing it, is unacceptable. Political appointees interfering with the reporting of truthful, scientific information is particularly dangerous during this pandemic, and subsequent efforts to cover up that interference compound the problem,” said CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder. “NARA now more than ever must promote transparency and ensure that agencies are complying with record-keeping laws. The lives of Americans literally depend upon our access to scientifically accurate information.”
The president and his administration are legally bound to preserve government records under the Presidential Records Act and FRA. The FRA is a collection of statutes governing the creation, management and disposal of federal records so that Americans can keep track of their government’s actions. The FRA ensures the “[a]ccurate and complete documentation of the policies and transactions of the Federal Government.”
CREW previously filed a complaint against Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and his staff for violating the FRA by purposefully failing to document Bernhardt’s daily schedule and meetings with industry lobbyists. In March, CREW also requested NARA’s communications with the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Interior to ensure they are effectively communicating with agencies that have failed to comply with record keeping rules.
“Destroying records to cover up political interference in life and death matters is beyond the pale, and NARA must respond,” said Bookbinder. “There is no excuse for hiding information from the public that affects their lives in an extraordinary time.”