Government Officials Ignore Public Comment, Create New Financial Burden on Fisherman

In a letter acquired by Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute), it appears that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Department of Commerce have approved a controversial fishery management proposal while ignoring public comments critical of the plan. This approval also seems to have been issued before the close of a second public comment period for implementing regulations. The NOAA rulemaking is expected to seriously impact commercial fishing on the Eastern seaboard by applying costly new burdens on fishermen.

The Background

In September 2018, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), in coordination with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a component of NOAA, sought approval for a controversial set of regulatory measures known as the New England Industry-Funded Monitoring Omnibus Amendment. The Omnibus Amendment would create a new financial burden on fishermen by mandating that they pay as much as $810 per sea day for at-sea monitoring in the Atlantic herring fishery. It would also create a standardized process for introducing similar costly monitoring requirements to other New England fisheries.

CoA Institute argued in its initial public comment on the Omnibus Amendment that the burdensome monitoring would unfairly and unlawfully restrict economic opportunity in the fishery. Aside from the questionable legal authority to create this effective new tax on fishermen, the $810-per-sea-day cost has the potential to wipe out the narrow margins that small-scale fishermen rely on to survive.

Following the publication of the notice of availability for the Omnibus Amendment, but before any approval decision was made, the agency oddly proposed implementing regulations in November 2018. Again, CoA Institute filed a public comment in opposition to the regulations.

CoA Institute’s second comment reiterated the legal infirmities with the funding scheme and, among other things, highlighted fatal flaws in the rulemaking’s Environmental Assessment. For example, after NEFMC’s adoption of the Omnibus Amendment’s herring measures, herring quota was reduced by more than 50%. The Council and NMFS plan to lower the annual catch limit even further over the next three years. By some estimates, these new cuts could reduce herring revenue by up to 87%. Such a loss in profitability on top of the costs associated with industry-funded monitoring would cripple fishermen who rely on the industry. Yet the government has done nothing to address these concerns or dilemma.

The Letter

Now, CoA Institute has discovered a letter from Michael Pentony, the Regional Administrator for NMFS’s Greater Atlantic Regional Office, which suggests that the Commerce Department has already approved the Omnibus Amendment, despite the fact that nothing has been published in the Federal Register, posted to NMFS’s herring bulletin, or communicated to the general public.

This supposed “approval” of the Omnibus Amendment ostensibly occurred on or around December 18, 2018, nearly a week before the close of public comment on NMFS’s implementing regulations. Given the agency’s publication of a notice of availability, and its solicitation of public comments on the substance of the Omnibus Amendment, it should also have published its approval decision for the fishery management plan in the Federal Register.

The fact that NMFS secretly approved the Omnibus Amendment, perhaps to avoid public outcry, only adds to concerns surrounding its decision to propose implementing regulations before publicly approving, in part or in full, the amendment’s various management measures, including industry-funded monitoring. Taken together, these facts strongly suggest the government prejudged the legality of the Omnibus Amendment and intended to force it through no matter the pushback. Indeed, it seems the government never planned to give adequate attention to the concerns raised by stakeholders, including CoA Institute. Those concerns certainly went unaddressed in the newly discovered letter.

The Questions

Administrator Pentony’s letter indicates that NMFS does not have adequate funding to administer the at-sea monitoring and portside sampling programs in the herring fishery for the current fishing year, which already started on January 1, 2019. Instead, NMFS would plan to implement the industry funding requirement in 2020. This estimated date of implementation, however, assumes that the Omnibus Amendment will not face challenge in the courts. CoA Institute has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for background information on the December 18, 2018 letter, and the possible reasoning for why the agency has yet to make any public announcements. We will provide additional details as they become available.

Ryan P. Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute

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Cause of Action Institute Submits Comment Criticizing Proposed Revisions to Department of the Interior’s FOIA Regulations

Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute) yesterday submitted a public comment to the Department of the Interior (DOI), criticizing the agency’s proposed revisions to its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regulations.  DOI’s amendments, which were published in the Federal Register in the final days of 2018, have already received negative attention from media sources, which suggest that the changes are intended to frustrate public access to records.  The government, for its part, claims that the revisions are necessary to deal with the marked increase of requests during the Trump Administration and to promote efficiency in the administration of the DOI FOIA program.

CoA Institute’s comment covers a variety of topics, but three are worth highlighting.  First, DOI seeks to prohibit intra-agency forwarding of “misdirected” requests.  But this proposal runs afoul of clear statutory directives.  Under Section 552(a)(6)(A)(ii) of the FOIA, the twenty working-day time frame for responding to a request begins to run once a request is received by an “appropriate component,” that is, the agency office likely to maintain responsive records.  In computing those twenty days, an agency is permitted no more than ten days to redirect any requests that have been sent to the wrong bureau or component.  In other words, so long as the agency has received the request, it is already under an obligation to begin processing it.  This “routing requirement” was introduced by the OPEN Government Act of 2007, and it has been consistently interpreted by the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Information Policy as prohibiting agencies from refusing to honor requests that have merely been sent to an incorrect office.

Beyond the legal deficiency in the elimination of intra-agency forwarding, it is not clear whether the change would even promote the efficiency goals envisioned by the rulemaking.  By refusing to forward misdirected requests, DOI may instead create an incentive for requesters to submit nearly-identical requests to multiple bureaus.  That could increase the FOIA backlog.  The elimination of intra-agency forwarding also would unfairly require requesters to identify the precise locations where the agency should conduct its search for responsive records.

Second, DOI wants to require requesters to describe the “discrete, identifiable agency activity, operation, or program” that their records requests concern.  Such ambiguous language imposes an unacceptable burden on requesters, who need only provide a “reasonable description” of the records they seek such that a knowledgeable professional within the agency could locate responsive material with reasonable effort.  DOI would similarly refuse to accept “broad requests,” despite the fact that OIP has advised agencies for over thirty years that “[t]he sheer size or burdensomeness of a FOIA request, in and of itself, does not entitle an agency to deny that request on the ground that it does not ‘reasonably describe’ records[.]”

Third, and finally, DOI proposes to change its regulatory definition of a “record” by deviating from the statutory text and importing language from the Privacy Act.  CoA Institute has diligently followed developments in how the government defines a “record” under the FOIA.  In October 2018, we filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice, challenging guidance that would permit agencies to break a single record into multiple smaller records, redacting information that should otherwise be public and that would not meet allowable exemptions under the FOIA statute.  DOI’s proposed rule follows this troubling guidance, particularly in its use of the Privacy Act’s definition of a record as “any item, collection, or grouping of information.”

DOI’s proposed definition of a record also includes items that are “reasonable encompassed by [a] request.”  This phrase seems to contemplate a relationship between the definition of a record and an individual request.  Yet a requester may only seek the disclosure of pre-existing records.  To allow the definition of a record to vary depending on any particular request would move away from an objective standard and allow FOIA officers too much discretion in the processing of potentially responsive materials.

CoA Institute is hopeful that DOI will accept these constructive comments, and others, and make any necessary corrections before publishing its final rule.

Ryan P. Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute

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Investigation Update: The FBI’s Third Production of Documents Showing Personal Email Use by High-Level Employees

Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute) has obtained a third batch of documents in our investigation of personal email use by former FBI Director James Comey and former FBI Chief of Staff James Rybicki. The FBI’s latest records production is the third of four rolling productions. The first document production can be viewed here and the second here.

The FBI produced 101 pages of records that cover one year of FBI operations calendars between December 2014 and December 2015 that former FBI Chief of Staff James Rybicki forwarded to his personal email account. As with previous document productions, the FBI appears to improperly redact names of FBI employees, even though they can be easily identified. For example, this February 2015 travel manifest redacts Director Comey’s name despite the fact that his speech at the conference is public knowledge according to local press reports: “The training, which began Monday at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut, included a keynote address by FBI Director James Comey. The LEEDS training description said it “enables participants to reflect upon and regroup for the next stage of their careers.”
You can view and download the documents here:



18 Cv 1800 File 2 Section 1 Part 2 (Text)

Kevin Schmidt is Director of Investigations for Cause of Action Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @KevinSchmidt8

CoA Institute Discovers Curious DHS FOIA Notification Process for Employee Records

Earlier today, Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute) received a misdirected email from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that apparently was intended to serve as a notification to an unidentified agency employee that certain personnel records were to be released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The “awareness” email indicated that employee-related records were scheduled to be released in response to a FOIA request.  It also identified the name of the FOIA requester—a CoA Institute employee—and included an attached file containing the records at issue.  The email was issued “[i]n accordance with DHS Instruction 262-11-001,” which is publicly available on the DHS’s website and appears to have been first issued at the end of February 2018.

Under Instruction 262-11-001, the DHS is required to “inform current [agency] employees when their employment records . . . are about to be released under the FOIA.”  “Employment records” is defined broadly to include any “[p]ast and present personnel information,” and could include any record containing personal information (e.g., name, position title, salary rates, etc.).  Copies of records also are provided as a courtesy to the employee.

The DHS instruction does not attempt to broaden the scope of Exemption 6, and it recognizes that federal employees generally have no expectation of privacy in their personnel records.  More importantly, the policy prohibits employees from interjecting themselves into the FOIA process.  This sort of inappropriate involvement has occurred at DHS and other agencies in the past under the guise of “sensitive review,” particularly whenever politically sensitive records have been at issue.

Nevertheless, the DHS “awareness” policy still raises good government concerns.  As set forth in the sample notices appended to the instruction, agency employees are routinely provided copies of responsive records scheduled for release, as well as the names and institutional affiliations of the requesters who will be receiving those records.

To be sure, FOIA requesters typically have no expectation of privacy in their identities, and FOIA requests themselves are public records subject to disclosure.  There are some exceptions.  The D.C. Circuit recently accepted the Internal Revenue Service’s argument that requester names and affiliations could be withheld under Exemption 3, in conjunction with I.R.C. § 6103.  Other agencies, which post FOIA logs online, only release tracking numbers or the subjects of requests.  In those cases, a formal FOIA request is required to obtain personally identifying information.

Regardless of whether the DHS policy is lawful, it is questionable as a matter of best practice.  Proactively sending records and requester information to agency employees could open the door to abuse and retaliation, particularly if an employee works in an influential position or if a requester is a member of the news media.  The broad definition of “employee record” also raises questions about the breadth of implementation.

Finally, there are issues of fairness and efficiency.  If an agency employee knows that his records are going to be released, is it fair to proactively disclose details about the requester immediately and without requiring the employee to file his own FOIA request and wait in line like anyone else?  The public often waits months for the information being given to employees as a matter of course, even though the agency admits that there are no cognizable employee privacy interests at stake.

More importantly, an agency-wide process of identifying employees whose equities are implicated in records and individually notifying them about the release of their personal details likely requires a significant investment of agency resources.  Would it not be more responsible to spend those resources on improving transparency to the public at large?  To reducing agency FOIA backlogs?  Notifying employees whenever their information is released to the public is likely only to contribute to a culture of secrecy and a further breakdown in the trust between the administrative state and the public.

Ryan P. Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute

2018.02.20 DHS Instruction 262-11-001

2018.12.20 DHS Notification Email

Investigation Update: VA releases 2014 memo on “sensitive review,” but fails to conduct an adequate search for more recent FOIA guidance

  • In August 2018, a group of eight Democratic Senators, wrote to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to express alarm over the possible politicization of the agency’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) processes. Specifically, they were concerned about the involvement of political appointees in the FOIA decision-making process.
  •  Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute) submitted a FOIA request to the VA seeking records about the agency’s “sensitive review” process, but the agency only disclosed a single document. After considering CoA Institute’s appeal, the VA Office of General Counsel ordered supplemental searches for additional records.
  • “Sensitive review” raises serious transparency concerns because the involvement of political appointees in FOIA administrative can lead to severe delays and, at worst, improper record redaction and incomplete disclosure.
  • Whenever politically sensitive or potentially embarrassing records are at issue, politicians and bureaucrats will have an incentive to enforce secrecy and non-disclosure.

Earlier this year, CoA Institute opened an investigation into the sensitive review process at the VA. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the public has long been aware of internal practices at the agency that could open the door to FOIA abuse. During the Bush Administration, the VA issued a directive concerning the processing of “high visibility” or “sensitive” requests that implicated potentially embarrassing or newsworthy records. The Obama White House subsequently updated that guidance in October 2013, when the VA instructed its departmental components to clear FOIA responses and productions through a centralized office. This clearance process imposed a “temporary requirement” for front office review and entailed a “sensitivity determination” leading to unnamed “specific procedures.”

Another record recently disclosed to CoA Institute illustrates how the VA again updated its sensitive review process in February 2014. According to the memorandum, the agency intended to continue its “long standing” procedure for notifying leadership of incoming FOIA requests that may be “substantial interest to the Office of the Secretary.” Exact guidance on the sorts of requests that would trigger such review, however, was still under development at the time. It is unknown how the notification process was implemented in the absence of that guidance.

To date, the VA has failed to disclose any further records about sensitive review. CoA Institute successfully appealed the Office of the Secretary’s final response, and the agency’s Office of General Counsel ordered additional searches on remand. A precise deadline for a supplemental response was not given, but we will provide updates as any additional records become available.

In light of its commitment to open government, CoA Institute has been a leader in examining cases of sensitive review at other agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration. We also have analyzed the practice at the Environmental Protection Agency on several occasions (here, here, and here). A recent press report concerning the EPA confirmed our warnings about the potential for delay when “sensitive” or politically charged records are targeted for special processing.

Regardless of which party or president controls the government, sensitive review poses a serious threat to government transparency. Alerting or involving political appointees in FOIA administration can lead to severe delays and, at its worst, contribute to intentionally inadequate searches, politicized document review, improper record redaction, and incomplete disclosure.

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Ryan P. Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute.

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Media ContactMatt Frendewey, matt.frendewey@causeofaction.org | 202-699-2018

CoA Institute Highlights Deficiencies in Proposed Rule to Shift Burdensome Costs of At-Sea Monitoring to Commercial Fishermen

The New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), in coordination with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), seeks to approve and implement a controversial set of regulatory amendments that would create a new industry-funding requirement for at-sea monitoring in the Atlantic herring fishery and, moreover, create a standardized process for introducing similar requirements in other New England fisheries.  Under the so-called Omnibus Amendment, the fishing industry would be forced to bear the burdensome cost of allowing third-party monitors to ride their boats in line with the NEFMC’s supplemental monitoring goals.  This would unfairly and unlawfully restrict economic opportunity in the fishing industry.

Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute) filed a public comment last month requesting that NMFS disapprove the Omnibus Amendment and scrap the NEFMC’s plans to shift monitoring costs onto fishermen. CoA Institute explained that the Omnibus Amendment raised serious legal questions concerning the authority of the government to compel regulated parties to pay for discretionary agency programs that cannot be funded with congressional appropriations or other statutorily-authorized means.

At the December 2018 meeting of the NEFMC, I reiterated the lack of statutory authorization for the Council’s efforts to create an industry-funded at-sea monitoring regime for the Atlantic herring fishery. A similar monitoring program currently exists in the Northeast multispecies groundfish fishery; CoA Institute represented a group of sector fishermen in a lawsuit challenging that requirement, but the case was dismissed on procedural grounds.

It is a fundamental principle of administrative law that federal agencies only possess congressionally delegated powers and are limited in their operation by the funding provided by Congress.  The NEFMC and NMFS’s efforts to coerce the fishing industry—including many small, family-owned businesses—to support monitoring programs that Congress has declined to fund sustain sets a dangerous precedent that lends itself to unaccountable and unlimited government.

Beyond the clear lack of statutory authorization, industry-funded monitoring in the herring fishery will also have devastating economic consequences.  Monitors are expected to cost between $710–810 per sea day, which would cut heavily into the economic viability of many small-scale operations.  And according to the government’s own proposed rule, at least some portion of the herring fleet would suffer up to a 20% reduction in annual “return-to-owner,” which is roughly analogous to profit.

Worse yet, the government’s cost estimates are based on data collected in 2014–2015, and the situation in the herring fishery has only worsened over the past few years.  This past summer, for example, the NEFMC and NMFS cut herring quota for the remainder of 2018 by 52%, and they now propose to cut the quota for the next three years by upwards of 70%.  Recent NMFS estimates suggest that these adjustments may cause an 80–87% reduction in herring revenue.  Coupled with new industry-funded monitoring requirements, that could spell the end of small-scale fishing firms dependent on herring operations.  That is an unacceptable result, and CoA Institute remains committed to fighting to prevent the effects of such burdensome overregulation.

Ryan P. Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute

Records Show How Former FBI Director James Comey Misled the DOJ Inspector General About His Personal Email Use

Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute) has obtained a second batch of former FBI Director James Comey and former FBI Chief of Staff James Rybicki’s emails sent or received on their personal, non-official email accounts to conduct agency business. The FBI’s latest records production is the second of four rolling productions. The FBI reviewed 518 pages of emails and released 439 pages to CoA Institute. Once again, these emails undermine Director Comey’s statements concerning the types of matters he discussed while using his personal email to conduct official business.

Last month, CoA Institute published the first set of records received as part of our FOIA lawsuit. Contrary to Director Comey’s representations to the DOJ that he never used his personal email account for “sensitive work,” the first batch of emails we obtained revealed otherwise. Those records included emails withheld in full and others redacted in part under the FOIA’s law enforcement exemption, which exempts from public disclosure certain sensitive information created or compiled for law enforcement purposes.

This new second batch of emails tells much of the same story. For example, the redactions in the completely redacted email below cite 3 bases for the application of the law enforcement exemption (b7A, C, & E). These exemptions pertain to information that, if released, could (A) interfere with law enforcement proceedings, (C) constitute an invasion of personal privacy, or (E) disclose law enforcement techniques and thereby risk circumvention of the law. In other words, the FBI determined that the work Director Comey conducted on his personal account was so sensitive in nature that it justified redaction under Exemption 7 of the FOIA to prevent disclosure to the public.

As explained in the FBI’s cover letter accompanying the production to CoA Institute, the FBI is only providing emails that Director Comey and his Chief of Staff forwarded or copied to their official FBI email accounts: “The FBI conducted email searches for any communications to or from James Rybicki’s and James Comey’s personal email accounts, located within Rybicki’s and Comey’s FBI email accounts.”  This follows from Director Comey’s claims that all FBI-related work he conducted on Gmail was forwarded to an official FBI account. As Director Comey told the DOJ Inspector General:

“I was always making sure that the work got forwarded to the government account to either my own account or Rybicki, so I wasn’t worried from a record-keeping perspective was, because there will always be a copy of it in the FBI system.”

But if Director Comey misrepresented the nature of the work he conducted on his personal email account, a plausible concern arises as to whether Director Comey thoroughly searched and forwarded all work related emails from his personal account to his government account This is why using private email accounts for government business is so problematic: The agency—and ultimately the public—must rely on the very people who are violating the rules by using personal email accounts to forward their work-related emails to official government accounts. If they forget or choose not to copy an official account, there is little chance the agency will ever search for and recover the federal records created or received on those personal accounts. And that means those records cannot be produced to the public under the FOIA.  The use of non-official accounts to conduct agency business, whatever the reasoning, imperils transparency, accountability, and good government, and it undermines trust.

You can view and download the documents here:

Part 1 (411 pages)

Part 2 (30 pages)

FBI Cover Letter

Kevin Schmidt is Director of Investigations for Cause of Action Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @KevinSchmidt8

Thomas Kimbrell is an Investigative Analyst at Cause of Action Institute.

____________________________________________________________

Media ContactMatt Frendewey, matt.frendewey@causeofaction.org | 202-699-2018