Unlawful agency directive appears to greenlight concealed communications on internal messaging platform

Washington D.C. –Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) today filed a lawsuit against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) for Google Chat or Hangouts communications from the New England Fishery Management Council’s (“NEFMC”) April 2017 meeting. The suit also seeks internal guidance on retention of Google Chat records on the agency’s internal messaging platform. NOAA failed to respond to two Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests submitted in May for these records.

The records sought by CoA Institute include guidance from NOAA’s Office of General Counsel for the retention of instant messages through the “Google Chat” or “Google Hangouts” feature of NOAA’s internal Unified Messaging System. According to a March 2012 NOAA handbook, employees were instructed that these messages “will be considered ‘off the record’ and will not be recorded in anyway.”

CoA Institute Vice President Julie Smith: “NOAA appears to have created an internal messaging platform to hide records from public disclosure. Any directive to make certain communications be considered ‘off-the-record’ clearly violates transparency laws.  Americans have a right to know how decisions are made that could jeopardize their livelihoods.”

The lawsuit also seeks all communications sent or received by employees of NOAA’s NEFMC who attended the April 18–20, 2017 meeting. During this meeting, the NEFMC approved a controversial amendment to expand the use of industry-funded at-sea monitors to the herring fishery and to prepare for its further expansion through all regional fisheries.

CoA Institute submitted a regulatory comment opposing the so-called Industry-Funded Monitoring Omnibus Amendment due to negative economic impacts that threaten the livelihoods of countless small-business fishermen. The cost for a monitor under the amendment would cost fishermen more than $700 per day at sea.  That would exceed the revenue a fisherman typically lands from his daily catch. The Secretary of Commerce has since commenced a review of the rule for compliance with federal law.

The full complaint is available here.
The two earlier FOIA requests are available here and here.

For information regarding this press release, please contact Zachary Kurz, Director of Communications: zachary.kurz@causeofaction.org