Archives for January 2015

Washington Free Beacon: Watchdog Group Appeals Government’s Definition of Media

Read the full story: Washington Free Beacon

The FTC in 2012 denied requests from Cause of Action for fee waivers on several FOIA requests, saying it did meet the qualifications because it was not a news media outlet.


““FTC’s desire to chill criticism appears to explain what occurred here,” Cause of Action executive director Dan Epstein said in a statement. “Upholding FTC’s ‘weaponization’ of FOIA will empower agencies to selectively define what is and isn’t ‘media’, thereby blocking transparency and significantly reducing the federal government’s accountability to all Americans.”


Cause of Action appealed the denial, but the U.S. District Court of Washington, D.C., ruled in favor of the FTC in 2013, finding that the watchdog group did not qualify as media because it was insufficiently disseminating news to the public.

ABA Panel Presentation: FOIA: Considerations for Practitioners

The ABA Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice Presents:
Freedom of Information Act Workshop

Download the presentation.

Listen to the presentation.

FOIA: Considerations for Practitioners

Daniel Epstein, Executive Director

Read agency FOIA regulations

  • Where do I send the request?
  • What is the method of transmission?
  • What is the fee schedule?
  • What is the deadline to appeal a response?

Are the docs you want already publicly available?

Be specific: This is not a discovery request

  • Provide dates, search terms, and names of agency employees, if possible.
  • Examples:
    • “The work calendars of TIGTA Inspector General J. Russell George from March 1, 2012 to July 31, 2013.”
    • “All documents regarding Mr. Edwards’ official travels for site checks or any other purpose, including the names of any individuals who accompanied Mr. Edwards from February 27, 2011 to the present.”
  • Document follow-up with agency in writing.




FOIA for communications with Congress (because you can’t FOIA Congress directly)

FOIA Congress

Ask different agencies for the same type of documents


How do agencies define terms?


Ethical/practical considerations of using FOIA while in litigation with an agency

According to the Department of Justice:

“[T]here simply exists no statutory or other legal prohibition against using the FOIA to supplement civil, criminal or administrative discovery in pending cases.”

-DOJ, FOIA Update Vol. VI, No. 3 (1985)



Cause of Action Appeals Ruling In Case Of Government Overreach Against Arkansas Small Business Owner

Cause of Action (CoA), a government accountability organization, today appealed a District Court ruling in the case of Rhea Lana, Inc. v. U.S. Department of Labor.

For a brief history of the case, please click here.

As we announced back in November:

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, though it ruled to dismiss Rhea Lana, Inc. v. U.S. Department of Labor, invited the D.C. Circuit to determine whether the Department of Labor (DOL) may lawfully destroy a small business by finding “violations” and soliciting others to sue using notice letters that evade judicial review.

Cause of Action Executive Director Dan Epstein issued the following statement:

The Department of Labor is hiding behind a false characterization of volunteers as employees, which has the practical effect of preventing the use of volunteers and will shut down successful franchise owners like Rhea Lana.  As the District Court recognized, agencies cannot avoid judicial review by hiding behind such administrative tactics, which essentially demand the recipient to comply or face stiff penalties.

Rhea Lana Riner issued the following statement:

I’m happy to see this appeal filed because it shows that we won’t stop fighting back against unfair government meddling. This case isn’t just about protecting my business – it’s about protecting the rights of mothers everywhere to use their personal time for their own benefit, and the consignment event industry at large. On an even bigger level, it’s about protecting small business owners who find themselves being threatened by big government overreach and overregulation.

The Hill: Six recommendations to make Washington more transparent

Six recommendations to make Washington more transparent

The 114th Congress, which convened on January 6, faces a deeply uncomfortable reality: The American people simply don’t trust their government. Fully two-thirds of Americans believe that Washington is on the wrong track. Public approval of Congress currently hovers around 15 percent—only one point above its all-time low.

The incoming Congress must seek to address this crisis of confidence. Our elected officials can start by taking up transparency and accountability issues to make the government more accountable to taxpayers.

Cause of Action recommends that Congress act in six specific policy areas:

Require Inspectors General to Actually Investigate. Perhaps the most important pro-transparency initiative that Congress can implement is ensuring compliance with the Inspector General Act. Under the Act, Inspectors General are authorized to conduct full investigations when they receive tips that illegal activity is occurring at a federal agency.

This topic is particularly newsworthy given the recent report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) confirming that the IRS targeted certain conservative nonprofits based on their political beliefs. However, TIGTA’s report was based only on an audit and not a full investigation. This limited inquiry into IRS’s clearly inappropriate behavior raised more questions than it answered.

In such situations, Inspectors General—whether at the IRS or any other federal agency—should conduct investigations, based upon compulsory interrogatories, subpoenas, and depositions. Audits, which are designed to review program effectiveness, are not the appropriate method of identifying and resolving allegations of illegality, remediable only through an investigative process.

Reintroduce the Grant Act. The Grant Act, originally introduced by then-Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) in 2011, is a straightforward bill that would make the federal grant process transparent. It requires federal agencies to establish uniform standards for how they notice, award, and disclose competitive grants. It would also require agencies to rank grant applicants according to those standards—and make them justify any deviation from those rankings. Ultimately, this would allow taxpayers to ensure that federal agencies are awarding grants using a merit-based—and not a politicized—process.

Police Fraud. In 2013, 3.5 percent of all federal payments were improperly awarded—a sum reaching $106 billion.  Congress should conduct oversight to ensure that agencies and the Department of Justice in particular are enforcing anti-fraud laws like the False Claims Act, the Improper Payments Information Act, and the Program Fraud Civil Remedies Act.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that most Inspectors General fail to enforce the Program Fraud Civil Remedies Act.  Further, public reports by federal agencies that merely identify allegations of fraud (like an audit) have barred whistleblowers from pursuing claims under the False Claims Act even when the feds fail to remedy the abuses.

Congress must ensure that these laws designed to empower whistleblowers are not being misread to incentivize agency failures to prevent fraud.

Hold the White House Accountable. In 2009, the White House, secretly demanded that federal agencies keep it apprised of any document requests containing “White House equities”—a term undefined by statute or regulation. Notwithstanding this lack of clarity, the White House obstructs congressional oversight and violates the spirit of FOIA when its political staff chills public oversight for the benefit of the President’s political image.

Congress should increase its oversight over the FOIA process to prevent the White House’s political offices from meddling into records requests to agencies or otherwise amend FOIA to subject those political offices to greater transparency.

Ensure Agencies Follow the Law. The Federal Records Act requires that agencies notify the Archivist of the United States if there is a proposed removal or destruction of records. The Internal Revenue Services’ failure to properly notify the Archivist regarding the supposed destruction of Lois Lerner’s emails shows that this process must be reformed.

Congress can strengthen enforcement of the Federal Records Act by reviewing the reporting process. Congress should also require that agencies create multiple sets of electronic back-ups to preserve emails and other important data.

Encourage FOIA Compliance. The Freedom of Information Act has been updated numerous times to keep pace with changes in technology, yet federal agencies continue to find new ways to avoid transparency. For example, while text messages involving official government business are records subject to FOIA, some agencies simply do not know how to locate and search for these records, disenfranchising the public of information. Another problem, reflected by the 30,000 “lost” and then later “found” Lois Lerner e-mails, is that agencies routinely destroy records – a crime – without any liability.

In light of this, Congress should conduct aggressive oversight to deter agencies from destroying or improperly withholding relevant records.

Effective congressional oversight would demonstrate to the public that the 114th Congress is serious about wisely stewarding taxpayer money and protecting the public from arbitrary and abusive executive power. It’s time for our elected officials to prove that they’re serious about making government work for, rather than against, the American people.

Epstein is the executive director of Cause of Action, a non-partisan organization that uses public advocacy and legal reform tools to ensure greater transparency in government, protect taxpayer interests and promote economic freedom.

Cause of Action Challenges FTC in Court for Obstructing Transparency


CONTACT: Geoff Holtzman, 703-405-3511,

Cause of Action Challenges FTC in Court for Obstructing Transparency

Agency Threatens the Integrity of FOIA, Conduct Part of a Larger Pattern

WASHINGTON – Cause of Action (CoA), a government oversight group, today will argue before the United States Circuit Court for the District of Columbia that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) improperly denied CoA’s request to be treated as a news media organization and for fee waivers under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Washington Post, National Public Radio, and the Daily Caller News Foundation, among others, filed a “friend of court” brief in support of CoA.

Cause of Action’s Executive Director Dan Epstein said: “This Administration pledged openness and transparency, yet FTC has done the reverse. President Obama has said regarding FOIA that ‘democracy requires accountability and accountability requires transparency.’ But by obstructing FOIA disclosure and by playing games with media status and fee waivers to reward friends and to punish critics, FTC has crippled transparency and obstructed accountability.”

“FTC’s desire to chill criticism appears to explain what occurred here. Upholding FTC’s ‘weaponization’ of FOIA will empower agencies to selectively define what is and isn’t ‘media’, thereby blocking transparency and significantly reducing the federal government’s accountability to all Americans.”

CoA filed three separate FOIA requests between 2011 and 2012 for information on FTC regulation of social media authors and bloggers. CoA advised FTC this information was for an article and investigative report because blogger regulations “justify close scrutiny.” FTC denied CoA information access, news media requestor status and fee waivers. At the same time, FTC granted fee waivers to the AFL-CIO, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Marin Institute. According to Mr. Epstein, “FTC’s desire to chill criticism appears to explain what occurred here.”

FTC’s conduct reflects a larger pattern of government games with FOIA. For example, in 2009, the White House Counsel required all government agencies to submit FOIA disclosures involving “White House equities” for political pre-review. In 2013, a study by the Competitive Enterprise Institute revealed that the Environmental Protection Agency granted fee waivers to politically favored groups in 75 out of 82 cases, but denied 14 of 15 requests for fee waivers by Agency critics during the same period of time. In 2014, AP’s Washington Bureau Chief said FOIA “is under siege” and that “Requests are now routinely forwarded to political appointees.”

To learn more about Cause of Action’s work on this case, please click here.

WHAT: Arguments in Cause of Action v. Federal Trade Commission

WHERE: United States Circuit Court for the District of Columbia

WHEN: TODAY, January 13, 2015 at 9:30 am 

To schedule an interview with Cause of Action’s Executive Director Dan Epstein, contact Geoff Holtzman at


Cause of Action Statement on Announcement of DOJ IG Michael Horowitz as Chairman of CIGIE

Cause of Action released the following statement today following the announcement of DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz as Chairman of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency:

Cause of Action congratulates Michael Horowitz on his chairmanship of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE). Chairman Horowitz brings the gravitas and investigative prowess necessary to bring true accountability to the executive branch, as he has demonstrated in his work as the Inspector General for the Department of Justice on matters ranging from Fast and Furious to nepotism in the nation’s immigration courts. In the past, CIGIE has failed in its oversight of such recent matters as the GSA spending scandal and the investigation of former DHS IG Charles Edwards, making the choice of Horowitz a welcome change and an encouraging sign for Americans concerned about government accountability. Cause of Action looks forward to the leadership Chairman Horowitz will provide and anticipates that CIGIE will help pave the way for more empowered and accountable Inspectors General to shine a light on what is happening in our federal agencies.

Selected FDIC Communications on Operation Choke Point

Below are two selected documents from the most recent OGR report on FDIC’s involvement in Operation Choke Point.

August 2013 email between FDIC officials regarding state regulation of an industry targeted by Operation Choke Point:


November 2012 email from Thomas Dujenski, (FDIC Regional Director, Atlanta), to Mark Pearce, (Director, FDIC Division of Depositor and Consumer Protection), regarding Dujenski’s viewpoints on the same industry: