WASHINGTON - Presidential adviser Karl Rove sent more than 140,000 e-mails through the Republican National Committee's computer system, circumventing a federal law intended to guarantee the preservation of presidential records, House of Representatives investigators have concluded.
While 88 White House aides used the back-channel system, Rove was its biggest user at the White House, and more than half of his communications dealt with official business, according to an interim report by the House Oversight Committee.
The White House initially had said that about 50 presidential aides used the Republican Party e-mail system to avoid sending political messages improperly through the White House system, which is supposed to be reserved for official government business.
But the line between official communications and partisan political messages seems to have been blurred. Susan Ralston, a former aide to Rove, told congressional investigators that Rove sent almost all of his e-mails through the RNC system and used a Blackberry that he received from the Republican Party from his first day at the White House.
Although 140,216 of Rove's e-mails have been preserved, committee investigators found that e-mails from 51 of the 88 White House aides who used the back-channel message system appear to have been destroyed.
Investigators said they could find no record of e-mails from Ken Mehlman, a former Rove aide who later became Republican Party chairman. Ralston told investigators that Mehlman regularly used the RNC e-mail system when he worked at the White House.
"At this point in the investigation, it is not possible to determine how many presidential records have been destroyed by the RNC," the committee staff reported. "The committee has obtained evidence of potentially extensive violations of the Presidential Records Act by senior White House officials."
The 1978 law requires the White House to preserve official documents. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who was White House counsel at the time, may have known about the White House aides' use of the RNC e-mail system, but he took no action to stop destruction of the records, the report said.
A Republican Party spokeswoman dismissed the committee report as "political spin."
"Not only have we been clear that we are continuing our efforts to search for e-mails, but there is no basis for an assumption that any e-mail not already found would be of an official nature," party spokeswoman Tracey Schmidt said.
Democrats suggested that White House aides used the back-channel e-mail system to hide potentially embarrassing, or even possibly incriminating, messages - an allegation that White House officials have vehemently denied.
"This administration's penchant for secrecy and disdain for oversight seems to know no bounds," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "This extensive end-run around the laws leads one to wonder what these officials wanted to hide from the public and Congress."
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the House Oversight Committee chairman, said the panel would continue to push for more information on the missing White House e-mails.
White House spokesman Tony Snow declined to respond directly to the staff report, but he defended the use of the Republican Party e-mail system. He said aides used RNC equipment and the e-mail network to comply with federal laws that prohibit the use of government supplies for partisan political activity.
"We've seen a number of times right now where people have been putting together investigations to see what sticks. They have had very little success so far. This is an administration that is very careful about obeying the law," he said.
The use of RNC e-mails by White House aides first drew attention last year during a congressional investigation into convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff's White House contacts. In a 2001 e-mail to one of Abramoff's associates, Ralston, then a Rove aide, seemed to view the RNC system as a way to avoid scrutiny.
"I now have an RNC blackberry which you can use to e-mail me at any time. No security issues like my WH e-mail," she wrote.
Ralston, who has since left the White House, was questioned under oath by congressional investigators last month, but she refused to discuss White House contacts with Abramoff or White House use of the RNC e-mail system unless she was granted immunity from prosecution.
Brad Berenson, her lawyer, said Ralston feared that her answers could "reasonably form some link in a chain of evidence" pointing to possible wrongdoing. He said Ralston, who wasn't granted immunity, had done nothing wrong.
The House Oversight Committee released Ralston's deposition along with the interim staff report.
Margaret Talev contributed.
McClatchy Newspapers 2007