USA First Look

In Exxon climate change probe, how will the ‘lost emails’ be recovered?

A New York state judge has ordered ExxonMobil Corp. to cooperate with New York's attorney general in recovering lost emails from the 'Wayne Tracker' account once used by US secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson responds to a reporter's question about the attack in London at the State Department in Washington, on Wednesday, March 22, 2017.
Cliff Owen/AP
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A New York state judge has ordered ExxonMobil to work with state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to recover lost emails, part of an ongoing climate change probe of the company.

The emails in question were from the address, Wayne.Tracker@ExxonMobil.com, which was active from at least 2008 through 2015. According to the attorney general, the account was actually an email alias for Rex Tillerson, then the chief executive of the corporation (Mr. Tillerson's middle name is Wayne). Currently, Tillerson is the US secretary of State, a fact which has raised the stakes of the investigation considerably.

The discovery of the alias email account last week caused some consternation in Mr. Schneiderman's office, which accused Exxon of not fully disclosing the true identity of the alias-holder. Exxon has said it turned over more than 2.5 million pages of documents in response to a subpoena from Schneiderman, as the attorney general tries to determine whether the company had misled the public – and its investors – about the reality of human-caused climate change.

"Despite the company's incidental production of approximately 60 documents bearing the 'Wayne Tracker' email address, neither Exxon nor its counsel have ever disclosed that this separate email account was a vehicle for Mr. Tillerson's relevant communications at Exxon, and no documents appear to have been collected from this email account," Schneiderman's office wrote in a letter to Judge Barry Ostrager of the New York Supreme Court in Manhattan, according to CNN. 

The corporation has denied any ill intent in the investigation, saying it made no attempt to hide the fact that "Wayne Tracker" was actually Tillerson. The corporation also emphasized that the alternate email was an effective way to manage priority messages, including, in this case, some messages about climate change. Tillerson's main email address, after all, was swamped with thousands of emails a day, many of which were from low-priority sources.

But at a Wednesday court hearing, a lawyer representing the attorney general said that Exxon had made a "bombshell" revelation that it had actually lost "thousands" of emails from the Wayne Tracker account. Exxon, however, said the lost emails were insignificant, and that copies of many of the emails would have already been turned over to the attorney general's office anyway. The company blamed the loss of the emails – about a year's worth – on a technical glitch having to do with their Microsoft Exchange system.

Mr. Ostranger has ordered that all relevant documents in the investigation be given to the attorney general's office before March 31, putting a ticking clock on efforts to recover the missing documentation.

Even though Tillerson became secretary of State after leaving his CEO position, his email scandal has joined those of other public figures who have also gotten heat for their online communications, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Mike Pence.

"The problem with email stems from the fact that the communications of public officials are (largely) public records," Brian Brox, a professor of American politics at Tulane University, told The Christian Science Monitor last week. "Public officials are obliged to archive these communications. This is relatively easy if we're talking about hard copy postal mail, but it becomes murkier when we're talking about electronic communications."

And when those public records go missing, it can spell trouble for former CEOs and politicians alike.

This article contains material from Reuters.

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