An audit report released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) provides alarming details concerning the lack of referral of cases of wrongful withholding under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) to the Office of Special Counsel (“OSC”).  Since at least 2008, neither the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) nor any federal court has referred a single case to the OSC so that the agency could investigate whether disciplinary action would be warranted for the arbitrary or capricious withholding of records litigated in court.  The publication of the audit coincided with the testimony of the GAO’s Director of Information Technology Management Issues, David Powner, at a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

OSC’s Investigatory Role under the FOIA

Congress envisaged a special role for the OSC in policing agency behavior with respect to the withholding of records.  Section 552(b)(4)(F) of the FOIA obliges the OSC to investigate whether disciplinary action is warranted against an official responsible for withholding records if a federal court has (1) ordered the production of those records, (2) assessed reasonable attorney fees and litigation costs against the government, and (3) issued a “written finding” that the case “raises questions whether agency personnel acted arbitrarily and capriciously with respect to the withholding.”

Once these conditions are met in any given case, the Attorney General must refer the matter for investigation to the OSC, and the agency at issue must take any corrective action recommended by the OSC.  If the government fails to comply, a court can punish a responsible official with contempt.  Apart from the FOIA, the OSC also has independent authority under 5 U.S.C. § 1216(a)(3) to investigate most allegations of arbitrary or capricious withholding of records.

No Referrals Have Been Made to the OSC Over the Past Ten Years

After examining various records and interviewing officials at the DOJ and OSC, the GAO concluded that, since 2008, no court orders have issued in a FOIA lawsuit such that referral to the OSC was appropriate.  At the same time, between 2013 and 2016, requesters in at least six cases nevertheless sought a court-ordered referral to the OSC.  In all six cases, the court denied the requests.

The referral provisions of the FOIA are toothless in practice.  According to one source, the OSC has investigated only two possible cases of punishable wrongdoing.  In Holly v. Acree, the OSC concluded that it could not determine the “officer or employee who was primarily responsible for the [wrongful] withholding.”  And in Long v. Internal Revenue Service, the OSC closed its investigation without any public findings.  Furthermore, despite numerous allegations and some instances of field investigation over the years, it does not appear that the OSC has ever initiated a disciplinary proceeding under Section 1216(a)(3).

Judicial decisions likewise exemplify the reticence of courts to refer cases to the OSC.  The judicial branch is already highly deferential to the government when assessing justifications for the treatment of FOIA records.  That deference appears to affect the analysis of whether it is appropriate to issue a “written finding” that an official or employee may have personally acted wrongfully.  For example, in the case of Kempker-Cloyd v. Department of Justice, No. 97-253, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4813 (W.D. Mich. 1999), the court acknowledged that an agency failed to act in a timely manner, to conduct adequate searches, or to comply with the FOIA “in good faith.”  On further order, the court also determined the agency was liable for attorney fees and litigation costs.  Yet the court still did not believe there was evidence suggesting the agency acted in an arbitrary or capricious manner.  In a more recent case, Consumer Federation of America v. Department of Agriculture, 539 F. Supp. 2d 225 (D.D.C. 2008), when faced with a motion to refer the case to the OSC after the agency conducted an inadequate search and lost responsive records, the court sidestepped the issue altogether by ordering the agency to file a supplemental declaration confirming its promise—made during oral argument—to revise the process for handling requests for electronic records and to correct the problems that led to the loss of the records at issue.  Countless other examples of judicial refusal to engage with the OSC referral provisions abound.

The FOIA Should Be Strengthened to Hold Agency Officials Responsible for Wrongful Withholdings

As it stands, agency officials are effectively unaccountable for their decision-making under the FOIA.  There is no punishment for an agency when it mishandles a request or forces a requester to file a lawsuit to obtain records or fight wrongful withholdings.  Indeed, it is the taxpayer who ends up footing the bill for the government’s litigation costs.  The individuals responsible for processing requests, therefore, have little incentive aside from their personal commitment to transparency to ensure that agency decision-making is consistent with the law.  Even if a requester prevails in court, he faces the uphill battle of securing attorney fees and recoverable litigation costs, not to mention the tremendous difficulty of obtaining a written finding of arbitrary and capricious behavior on the part of the agency.

The requester community deserves better.  If agency officials knew that they would be held personally responsible for their administration of the FOIA, we would have a more efficient disclosure regime and a more transparent government.  The OSC can and should play an important role here, but the FOIA, as implemented, does not currently facilitate that endeavor.  Congress should undertake efforts to remedy the situation.

Ryan Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute