Archives for March 2017

Report Finds Threat of IRS Targeting Continues Today

Washington D.C. – Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) today released a staff report titled, “Sensitive Case Reports: A Hidden Cause of the IRS Targeting Scandal,” outlining how seven years after the IRS targeting scandal began, the rule that enabled this inexcusable behavior remains in place.

IRS targeting during the Obama administration involved invasive questioning and years-long delays in the processing of applications by non-profit organizations for tax-exempt status, and focused disproportionately on right-leaning groups, especially those with “Tea Party” in their name. The policy that enabled this targeting is an internal rule that singles out applications from any group interested in issues that might garner attention from either the media or Congress. In such cases, the merits of the application are ignored as IRS employees develop “Sensitive Case Reports” for consideration by those above them in the IRS hierarchy.  In the targeting scandal, the existence of this rule allowed partisan concerns to overtake the process, leading to the unfair treatment of groups holding political viewpoints at odds with the Obama administration.

The report explains that unless and until that rule is removed from the internal manual used by all IRS employees, targeting of political opponents will remain a very real threat. Fortunately, removing the offending provisions is a simple process that can be started at any time and completed without the need for new legislation.

The full report can be accessed HERE

In Case You Missed It…

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‘Media Attention’ and IRS Abuse
A simple rule fix could end partisan targeting tomorrow.

By John J. Vecchione | March 21, 2017

The Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of Americans for their political views may have ended with the Obama administration—or even with its exposure in 2013. But it could easily recur. Even now, an internal IRS rule singles out applicants for nonprofit status who might be tied to anything newsworthy.

The genesis of the targeting scandal was Section 7.29.3 of the Internal Revenue Manual. As noted in a report my organization is issuing Wednesday, this manual dictates how IRS employees handle everything from customer service to criminal investigations… Read More


For information regarding this press release, please contact Zachary Kurz, Director of Communications at CoA Institute:

Lawsuit Demands Records on EPA Employees’ Use of Encrypted Messaging App

Washington, D.C. – Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) has filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia after the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) failed to disclose records about its employees’ use of an encrypted messaging application, “Signal,” to discuss the Trump administration’s expected changes to the agency’s policy agenda.

The lawsuit follows a February 2, 2017 Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request, which sought all records of Signal communications created or received by EPA officials, as well as records concerning the EPA’s efforts, if any, to retriever, recover, or retain such work-related correspondence in accordance with federal records management laws.

Cause of Action Institute Assistant Vice President Henry Kerner: “Career employees at the EPA appear to be using Signal to avoid transparency laws and vital oversight by the Executive Branch, Congress, and the public.  Communications on this encrypted application, however, which relate to agency business must still be preserved under the Federal Records Act and be made available for disclosure under the FOIA.  Taxpayers have a right to know if the EPA’s leadership is meeting its record preservation obligations.”

According to media reports, at least a dozen EPA career employees have been using Signal to communicate about work-related issues, including how to prevent President Trump’s political appointees from “undermin[ing] their agency’s mission to protect public health and the environment” or “delet[ing] valuable scientific data.”  CoA Institute’s investigation into this matter has been widely discussed in the press, along with Congress’s request for the EPA’s watchdog to independently investigate the matter.  To date, the EPA has failed to issue a timely determination on CoA Institute’s FOIA request, let alone produce any responsive records.

The full complaint can be found here.

For information regarding this press release, please contact Zachary Kurz, Director of Communications:




A Warrantless Phone Search, A Dangerous Precedent

Washington D.C. – Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) today filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Defendant Hamza Kolsuz who in February, 2016 was arrested at a Virginia airport attempting to board a plane bound for Istanbul, Turkey.

At the time of his arrest, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) Customs and Border Patrol (“CBP”) officers seized Mr. Kolsuz’s iPhone and subsequently ordered a month-long, warrantless forensic search, resulting in nearly 900 pages of detailed information, including Mr. Kolsuz’s internet-browsing history, text messages, emails, and various geographic locations he had visited. Under a 2014 Supreme Court case, any search of a cellphone seized during an arrest requires a warrant.  

While Mr. Kolsuz filed a legal motion to suppress the evidence obtained without a warrant, the presiding judge ruled that the search constituted a border search, and was therefore legal under a narrow exception to the Fourth Amendment. Mr. Kolsuz was found guilty and sentenced to thirty months in prison.

We believe the District Court erred in allowing the evidence. Our brief urges the court to reverse the previous decision and grant Mr. Kolsuz a new trial.  While in certain circumstances, a border search may be conducted without a warrant, in this instance the governmental interests that justify this exception were not in play because neither Mr. Kolsuz nor his phone were crossing any border after his arrest. 

The brief states:

At the time of the search, neither Mr. Kolsuz nor his smartphone were in the process of crossing any border. The Government was not furthering any interest in prohibiting the entry or exit of contraband, enforcing currency control, levying duties or tariffs, or excluding travelers without the property documentation to enter the country…

The privacy interests inherent in electronic devices are so high as to require a minimum of probable cause to justify their search.  Any less protection will continue to chill First Amendment protections, harm business interests, and violate the Fourth Amendment rights of Americans to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.

Federal customs agencies have essentially turned what was supposed to be a narrow exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement into a loophole to search anyone’s cellphone or laptop without any reasonable suspicion or probable cause to suspect them of a crime.  Under current DHS “guidance,” anyone who travels internationally can be detained, asked to grant a customs agent access to their cellphone or laptop (including their social media accounts, email, and other remotely-stored information), and even face seizure of their device for off-site searching if they refuse to consent to the search.  News reports have detailed the recounts of many Americans who have been subjected to this policy.  DHS searched 5,000 electronic devices in February of this year alone.  

In addition to the troubling implications under the Fourth Amendment’s right to privacy, the brief outlines how electronic devices are such a commonplace tool that modern business would be unable to function without them.  Journalists and legal organizations rely on smartphones, tablets, and laptops to communicate with sources around the world, store research and contact information, draft and publish news articles, and film or photograph live events, and upload stories to social media.  Similarly, lawyers routinely utilize laptops and smartphones as repositories of attorney-client communications and work product documents. Businesses also need such devices to perform proprietary work, transmit documents detailing trade secrets, and remotely access company information.   

The courts have carefully crafted legal balancing tests that recognize the need to protect certain information, like journalist sources, attorney-client privileged information, and confidential trade secrets, by allowing the government to access such privileged information only when certain compelling justifications exist. In this regard, the current DHS “policy” purporting to allow the agency unfettered access to information at the border does not only contravene the privacy rights of individuals, but also disrupts other carefully-created judicial safeguards that protect the information of businesses, journalists, and lawyers’ clients, from disclosure.

The brief was filed on behalf of Cause of Action Institute, along with the Committee for Justice, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the rule of law, and Floor64 Inc. that publishes the online news site, Techdirt’s journalists routinely depend on the ability to protect its sources and private information.

The full brief is available here

For information regarding this press release, please contact Zachary Kurz, Director of Communications at CoA Institute:


The Proof is in the Metadata: Recent Developments in CEI v. OSTP

Last summer, in Competitive Enterprise Institute v. Office of Science & Technology Policy, 827 F.3d 145 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (“CEI v. OSTP”), the D.C. Circuit reached an important decision concerning an agency’s obligation to search private email accounts maintained by government officials for records responsive to a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request. The court determined that if an official “possesses what would otherwise be agency records [e.g., work-related email], the records do not lose their agency character just because the official . . . takes them out the door [e.g., to a private account][.]” Id. at 149. Thus, if a personal email account may contain agency records, the agency cannot categorically refuse to conduct a search of that private account.

This past week, however, the district court on remand appeared to dampen the impact of the D.C. Circuit’s ruling. Judge Gladys Kessler determined that OSTP had met its burden under the FOIA and did not have to conduct a search of former Director John Holdren’s personal email account, the contents of which had been saved on a thumb drive last December under court order. OSTP successfully argued that any agency records on Holdren’s non-governmental account would be duplicative of records already on OSTP servers. The agency pointed to a policy that required Holdren to forward work-related email to his official account or to copy that account on work-related correspondence. OSTP also attested that Holdren obeyed this policy on “approximately 4,500 occasions” and was otherwise entitled to a presumption of compliance “absent evidence to the contrary.” CEI could not rebut the presumption.

The district court’s decision, particularly on the heels of Sunshine Week, is disappointing. First, although a requester admittedly cannot rely on speculation to prove wrongdoing, once a requester has proven that a non-governmental system contains agency records, the agency should not be allowed to forego a search of that system simply because it claims to possess “duplicative” records elsewhere. It is difficult enough to demonstrate that an agency official is violating the spirit, if not the law, of transparent government by using personal email for work-related purposes. The existence and usage of a parallel personal account should be enough, in most cases, to rebut any presumption of compliance with preservation rules. Of course, OSTP may have given sufficient evidence of Holdren’s compliance in this case—an affidavit indicated that he forwarded or copied his official email account approximately 4,500 times—but courts should remain skeptical that all agency records have been forwarded when atypical means of conducting government business are at issue. One need only consider the ongoing saga of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email accounts, where additional State Department records were uncovered even after she had averred that all such records had been turned over, to understand why this should be the case.

Second, assuming OSTP had copies of all agency records from Holdren’s personal account, it is not clear that these copies would actually be “duplicative.” For example, CEI argued that it sought Holdren’s email in “electronic format” along with any “metadata.” On this theory, copied or forwarded email records on OSTP’s servers may not, in fact, be “duplicative” because they may not include all original metadata. Judge Kessler found this line of argument unpersuasive and held that the metadata in Holdren’s personal email would “not in itself make each email unique as compared to the forwarded reproduction[.]” This conclusion is wrong and sets a dangerous precedent.

Metadata includes various types of information about an electronic document that are not usually visible, but reflect important characteristics concerning the document’s origin, alteration, or usage. It includes “substantive metadata,” such as tracked changes in Microsoft Word; “system metadata,” which is created by a computer system, such as the information contained in a file’s properties; and “embedded metadata,” such as hyperlink details or Excel formulae. See Aguilar v. Immigration & Customs Enf’t, 255 F.R.D. 350, 354–55 (S.D.N.Y. 2008) (discussing different types of metadata).

Numerous state courts have ruled that metadata forms an integral part of an electronic record and is subject to disclosure under state-based Freedom of Information regimes. No federal court has settled the question for the FOIA, but it seems appropriate to adopt a similar default presumption that metadata must be disclosed so long as it forms an integral part of an electronic record and is readily reproducible. A requester should not even need to specifically request integral metadata.

There may not be a one-size-fits-all approach to distinguishing different types of metadata and which form an integral part of a record. The best approach would take into account an agency’s storage practices and the type of electronic records at issue—Does the agency store email in a hard-copy format or electronically? Are electronic copies kept in native or near-native format? What sort of metadata is preserved in those formats? It would also consider an agency’s ability to readily reproduce metadata—Are email records readily releasable as PDF or MSG files? Finally, it would look to whether a requester has specified that he wants an agency to produce (rather than merely search for) records in a form that includes metadata. See, e.g., Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington v. Department of Education, 905 F. Supp. 2d 161, 171–72 (D.D.C. 2012) (“CREW did not request that DoEd produce its records in electronic format . . . DoEd thus had no obligation to produce the documents in any particular format.”) (internal citation omitted).

This proposed approach under the FOIA is supported by the treatment of metadata in other legal contexts. Under implementing regulations for the Federal Records Act, for example, “electronic record” is defined as “both record content and associated metadata that the agency determines is required to meet agency business needs.” 36 C.F.R. § 1220.18. “Metadata,” in turn, “consists of preserved contextual information describing the history, tracking, and/or management of an electronic document.” Id. When it comes to email records, some metadata can form an integral part of the electronic record. See id. § 1236.22(a). In the civil discovery context, when metadata exists as part of a document’s native format, it should be produced to an opponent. If a party seeks discovery of additional metadata, a court will typically grant it so long as the metadata is reasonably accessible and potentially relevant to the dispute at hand.

From the outset of its case, CEI argued that it sought agency records that were stored on Holdren’s personal email account in an electronic format. Metadata integral to those records (viz., sender, recipient, and “BCC” recipient information, etc.) might not have carried over in toto to the copies on OSTP’s servers. Such information could be instructive, as any litigator or investigative journalist would attest, and might even explain why Holdren was using a personal email account for official government business in the first place. The district court considered OSTP’s “duplicative” email records “functionally equivalent” to the originals on Holdren’s private account. That much is true when considering the visible content of the email. But that’s only half of the story. Metadata lurks beneath, and without the original integral metadata, any copies of Holdren’s email on OSTP’s servers are incomplete and not duplicative.

Ryan Mulvey is counsel at Cause of Action Institute.

Selective Memory: Presidential Control of Press and Information

Among people who know and use the Freedom of Information Act and similar laws to discover and report what the government is doing, this week is known as Sunshine Week, a time to promote government transparency. But a disorienting fog has settled in.

When was the last day that the news did not include a report about the President’s use of direct social media to avoid traditional press outlets whom he regularly disparages for using unlawfully leaked information to unfairly report what the government is doing and planning? Allegations abound that the administration regularly imposes unprecedented policies that restrict or remove access to government information and impede contacts between the press and knowledgeable civil servants.  For example:

“White House curbs routine disclosure of information and deploys its own media to evade scrutiny by the press.”

“It’s turning out to be the administration of unprecedented secrecy and unprecedented attacks on a free press.”

The “administration’s steadily escalating war on leaks, the most militant I have seen since the Nixon administration, has disregarded the First Amendment and intimidated a growing number of government sources of information — most of which would not be classified — that is vital for journalists to hold leaders accountable.”

The administration’s anti-leak effort “targets not only national security departments and agencies but most federal bureaucracies from the Peace Corps to the Social Security Administration and the Education and Agriculture Departments.”

“[W]e now have evidence of a pattern of anti-media behavior…. The suspicion has to be that maybe these ‘leak’ investigations are less about deterring leakers and more about intimidating the press.”

The administration’s “recent effort to stem leaks in the federal workforce doesn’t just exemplify … cluelessness. It verges on being a parody of it.”

The depth of dismay is hard to overstate. An executive editor of The New York Times put it this way: “I would say it is the most secretive White House that I have ever been involved in covering, and that includes — I spent 22 years of my career in Washington and covered presidents from President Reagan on up through now, and I was Washington bureau chief of the Times during George W. Bush’s first term.”

But none of the above-linked stories is about President Trump or current events. All of these complaints were written about President Obama early in his second term.

This selection of stories about how the Obama administration manipulated the media and restricted independent access to government information is representative. If anything, it’s too cautious.  Readers can find much more, and much worse, reported by the most respected of voices. Even so, complaints about the relationship between the press and the Obama and Trump administrations and their unprecedented, programmatic restriction of access to information are strikingly similar.  Perhaps such practices sting more sharply after a President takes the oath and starts to govern.  Politico reports that the President’s aides are “obsessed with taking advantage of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and every other social media forum, not just for campaigns, but governing.” Yet that story, too, was about President Obama, not President Trump.

Controlling information in service of a president’s political objectives is not new. It is not sui generis and did not spring forth fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s head—or President Trump’s.  The current administration has taken another step in a well-known progression, and not a big one at that.  In historical context we can recognize it without surprise as the next manifestation of Leviathan’s thirst for ever more power and control.  Bob Schieffer, after decades as a Washington correspondent and broadcast news anchor, sums up the situation this way:  “When I’m asked what is the most manipulative and secretive administration I’ve covered, I always say it’s the one in office now.”

Mike Geske is counsel at Cause of Action Institute

Speaker Ryan’s Odd Claim that HHS Secretary Price is Barred from Disclosing Regulatory Plans

In response to a question from a reporter during his press conference discussing the American Health Care Act, House Speaker Paul Ryan claimed that Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price couldn’t disclose his plans to provide regulatory relief from ObamaCare.  This regulatory relief is Phase Two in the Speaker’s three-phase plan to reform federal health law.  As far as we can tell, no such legal bar exists.

Here’s the exchange:

CNBC Reporter: You’ll need companies onboard to provide the optionality that you’re talking about and almost every industry organization has come out against this.  The reason why there isn’t as much participation as customers might like is because these companies can’t offer these products and still make money.  How do you get buy-in from the business community?

Speaker Ryan: It’s a great question.  Here’s what people aren’t seeing, which is Number Two.  Tom Price, for legal reasons, can’t tell you what he’s thinking about doing.  There’s laws that prevent that.  We can do so much deregulation through the Executive Branch by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.  He actually just put one regulation out the other day, which will go a long ways toward lowering the cost of health insurance.

We sent repeated emails to the Speaker’s office asking for an explanation or identification of which laws the Speaker was referencing, but they’ve gone unanswered.  Our own research has failed to uncover any laws that would prevent Secretary Price from discussing his regulatory plans.

What seems more likely is that either HHS hasn’t formulated all of its plans for regulatory relief or that, if it has, the Speaker is holding those cards close to his vest.  Either way, we know of no laws that prevent HHS from announcing its regulatory intentions either to Congress or the public, and Speaker Ryan hinders open debate on the issue by stating otherwise.

Josh Blackman has detailed some of the regulatory options available to HHS.  If the Speaker and Secretary Price intend to use any of these options, or have others of their own, they should disclose it to the public and not claim there are secret, unidentified laws that prevent them.

James Valvo is Counsel & Senior Policy Advisor at Cause of Action Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesValvo.

Fighting Confusion and Complacency to Keep the IRS Accountable

It seems like a simple idea – the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows any interested citizen to request documents from the people and agencies who exercise power over them. Elected officials have called it “our nation’s premiere transparency law” and one which serves a “crucial need … for open access to government information.”  Unfortunately, as one recent case shows, the process rarely works this way, leading to frustrating and sometimes bizarre results.

In 2014, Cause of Action Institute became concerned that lawyers employed by the Tax Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) were being detailed to work at the White House. At least two of these attorneys had access to the confidential taxpayer information of administration opponents because of their prior work on lawsuits connected to the IRS “targeting” scandal, and giving them this kind of assignment was unprecedented.  Taxpayer information would normally be kept private from White House officials, including the president, but now a pipeline had been opened where such information could reach political appointees. [See our investigative report discussing this issue in greater detail]

IRS quotes[Excerpts from IRS letters complaining about having to search its own records. CoAI would later discover a search had already taken place]

The IRS has a long history of misusing tax information, one that reaches as far back as FDR. Without proper procedures or training, the same kind of misconduct will inevitably happen again no matter which political party is in charge.  To find out more about the attorney transfers and whether any steps had been taken to safeguard taxpayer privacy, we submitted a FOIA request to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for e-mails between three attorneys assigned to the White House and the IRS division at the heart of the targeting scandal.

The request was sent in January 2014. The first reply arrived a month later, but it was merely notification that the agency would be “unable to send the information” within the 20 business days required by FOIA.  A second delay letter arrived in May, followed by a third delay in August and yet another delay in December.

Finally, in April of the following year – a full 282 business days after the 20 business-day deadline – we received a response. But it was not the e-mails we requested; it was a notice that our request was now too broad and would be closed because searching the e-mails of three people was “an unreasonable burden upon the IRS.”  Even if this were true, which seemed very unlikely, the agency had violated its own rules by dragging out the process and then failing to give us a chance to narrow the request before rejecting it.  We pointed out these problems in an appeal of the IRS decision, but the agency refused to acknowledge these problems and again rejected our request.

In an attempt to figure out how the process had gone so wrong, we submitted another FOIA request in May 2016 requesting the “processing notes” for the original request.  These notes document what happens to a request once it arrives at a government agency.  They are internally made, follow a particular format, and should be among the simplest of documents to locate and share.  Yet the first delay letter soon arrived, and another one three months later.  Not wanting to wait for a third delay notification, we filed a lawsuit against the agency to get a full explanation of what happened.

Such lawsuits are often required to get a meaningful response from the government, and ours finally forced the IRS to release the processing notes for our original request. So what was the explanation for the agency refusing to conduct a simple search – and taking over a year to say so?

Apparently, there wasn’t one. The IRS tax law specialist processing the request had marked in her records all the way back in December 2014 that a search had been done and “produced no documents.”  This happened four months before the IRS called our request “an unreasonable burden,” seven months before the agency claimed it was “unable to initiate a search” at all, and a full two years before we filed suit just to discover the IRS could have saved everyone time and money simply by reporting its original findings.

Why would government officials compare our request to “an all-encompassing fishing expedition” if they already knew there weren’t any fish to catch? The answer, if there is one, remains to be seen.  The original FOIA request is the subject of a separate and ongoing lawsuit, but the IRS has not yet produced any responsive documents.  If no improper communication took place between the lawyers transferred to the White House and their former IRS colleagues, then that is good news.  If no ethics training was given to those lawyers, then that good news is merely a coincidence.  Whatever the truth turns out to be, it is a worrying sign that a simple request can result in years of delays, constant obstruction, contradictory answers, and no solid explanation for any of these.

John McGlothlin is counsel at Cause of Action Institute