USDA Adopts CoA Institute’s Recommendations for Improved FOIA Regulations

The Department of Agriculture finalized a rule today implementing revised Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) regulations that incorporates important revisions proposed by Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) in a comment submitted to the agency last year.  These changes are a small, but important, step towards more transparent government and proper administration of the FOIA. Learn More

NASA Adopts CoA Institute’s Recommendations to Improve Revised FOIA Regulations

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”) finalized a rule last week to implement revised Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) regulations.  That final rule incorporates important revisions proposed by Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) in a comment submitted to the agency in May 2019.  CoA Institute’s comment recommended improvements to several aspects of NASA’s proposed regulations that were inconsistent with current statutory guidelines regarding fee reduction classifications and the proper scope of searches for agency records.  CoA Institute also recommended that NASA add a provision to implement the  “foreseeable harm” standard—a new statutory requirement that CoA Institute has been investigating government-wide.  These changes are a small, but important, step towards more transparent government and proper administration of the FOIA. Learn More

The EPA bypassed public comment on its new FOIA regulations, which raises some important legal questions

The Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) has long struggled with the politicization and abuse of its Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) processes.  Indeed, as Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) has repeatedly argued, the agency has a “terrible track record for anti-transparency behavior”—from the weaponization of fee waivers and the use of undisclosed “alias” e-mail accounts, to the failure to preserve text messages and the creation of special “awareness review” procedures for politically sensitive FOIA requests.  Yet the EPA’s rather poor reputation plunged even further in late June 2019, when the agency published an unexpected direct final rule implementing various changes to its FOIA regulations. Learn More

Cause of Action Institute Secures Rare Preservation Order in Fight to Obtain DOJ Records Created on Personal Email Account

Government official caught using personal email to conduct official business ordered to maintain copies of all records in Gmail account

Washington, D.C. (April 26, 2019) – Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute), a nonpartisan government watchdog organization, today announced it had secured a rare federal court order requiring a former U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) employee to preserve the contents of her personal email account, which had been used to conduct official agency business. Those records may be subject to later release.

Ryan Mulvey, counsel for CoA Institute, issued the following statement:

“Government transparency is a fundamental necessity in a free and open society. The use of personal devices to conduct official business remains a serious concern, resulting in records being lost, unsecured, or improperly destroyed. In some cases, personal email accounts are used to avoid disclosure altogether. This court order is an important reminder to all government employees to avoid using personal email and devices and adhere to all relevant agency rules and government transparency statutes. It also is a warning to agencies to ensure that they meet their record-keeping obligations.”

U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta granted Cause of Action’s motion, ordering the U.S. Department of Justice to require a former employee, Sarah Isgur Flores, not to delete any emails stored in her personal Gmail account, and to store copies of the account’s contents onto a thumb drive or other storage device, including all emails in archived or deleted folders. The Court also ordered Ms. Flores to maintain the emails until further instructed, and gave the U.S. Department of Justice until May 2, 2019 to provide notice of its compliance with the preservation order. Although the issuance of such a preservation order is rather rare, it is the latest example in a developing trend. Federal courts have become increasingly concerned about the use of personal email to conduct agency business, and they are taking serious the possible loss or destruction of government records that may be subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and other federal records management statutes, including the Federal Records Act.

Background

In 2017, media reports indicated that Sarah Isgur Flores, then-spokeswoman for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, used her personal email to issue official statements on behalf of the government. Due to concerns that this sort of behavior could harm the public’s access to official records, and in light of past instances of personal email having been used as a way to conceal public information, Cause of Action Institute filed a FOIA request for Ms. Flores official work-related emails sent or received through her personal devices or accounts. After waiting more than 18 months for a response, CoA Institute sued DOJ to force the disclosure of the Flores records.

On September 27, 2018, DOJ responded, “As is evident from the enclosed records, Ms. Flores forwarded emails sent to her personal account to her official Department of Justice email account, including through an automatic forward. As such, all of these emails were located pursuant to our search of Ms. Flores’ official Department of Justice email account.”

However, within the 112 pages produced by DOJ, the original email issued by Ms. Flores, as reported by members of the press, was missing. Despite raising this issue with DOJ, the government insisted the 112 pages were a full-and-complete record. As a result, and after learning of Ms. Flores’s departure from public service, CoA Institute filed a motion, urging the court to compel DOJ and Ms. Flores to preserve all relevant records.

Late on Thursday, April 25, the Court granted CoA Institute’s motion in full, compelling the government to coordinate with Ms. Flores to preserve her personal email account and maintain copies pending further court proceedings.

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CoA Institutes’s Motion for Preservation Order

Federal Court’s Order for Preservation of Records 

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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

DOJ Releases First Set of Documents Showing High-Level Employee Using Private Email

“[L]ack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the ‘stupidity of the American voter’ or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass. – Jonathan Gruber, architect of Obamacare.

A fundamental pillar of an open and free society is a transparent and accountable government and the reason why Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) is investigating the use of non-governmental email for official government business by current and former high-level employees at the Department of Justice.

On March 1, 2017, Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere tweeted Sarah Isgur Flores, the new spokesperson at the U.S. Department of Justice, used her personal Gmail account to send out an official statement.

While public officials, by accident or necesity, use personal devices from time-to-time, the Obama Administration was notorious for using personal email and secretive government email accounts to avoid disclosure.

CoA Institute filed a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request the next day seeking the statement allegedly sent from Flores’ Gmail account along with all emails sent or received by Flores from a non-governmental email account since January 20, 2017, when the Trump Administration took office.

After a year and a half of waiting for a response, we filed suit on August 1, 2018 to obtain the documents. On September 27, 2018, the DOJ Office of Information Policy (“OIP”) provided a final response on the Flores request and claimed that the records were located in an official DOJ email account:

As is evident from the enclosed records, Ms. Flores forwarded emails sent to her personal account to her official Department of Justice email account, including through an automatic forward. As such, all of these emails were located pursuant to our search of Ms. Flores’ official Department of Justice email account.

OIP’s production included 112 pages of emails showing Flores either forwarding or carbon copying her official DOJ email in late February through the end of March 2017. Yet despite the assurance from OIP that they have provided all the emails sent from a non-governmental account, OIP failed to include the original March 1, 2017 press statement that prompted CoA Institute’s FOIA request. It’s unclear whether  Flores failed to forward it to her official account, or if OIP failed to identify and include it in its document production.

The Flores records are only the first production owed to CoA Institute from DOJ in this litigation. The other records at issue concern the use of non-governmental email accounts by former FBI Director James Comey and former FBI Chief of Staff James Rybicki. In a September 20, 2018 Joint Status Report, the FBI’s search for records uncovered more then “1,200 potentially responsive records”:

The FBI has completed its search and has located approximately 1,200 potentially responsive records, some of which may require consulting subject matter experts or referrals to other agencies. It anticipates a four-month processing timeline with the first release on October 31, 2018, and additional releases following on a monthly basis.

The 1,200 potentially responsive records is significant because the June 2018 Department of Justice Office of Inspector General (“IG”) report found “numerous instances in which Comey used a personal email account (a Gmail account) to conduct FBI business,” but only cited five examples. Further, Rybicki claimed that the use of non-governmental accounts was “rare”, and Comey stated that it was only used for documents that would be “disseminated broadly.”  From the DOJ IG report:

Comey stated that he did not use his personal email or laptop for classified or sensitive information, such as grand jury information. Comey told us that he only used his personal email and laptop “when I needed to word process an unclassified [document] that was going to be disseminated broadly, [such as a] public speech or public email to the whole organization.”

 

We also asked Rybicki about Comey’s use of a personal email account. In response to the OIG’s questions and in consultation with Comey, Rybicki sent the OIG an email on April 20, 2017, that stated: In rare circumstances during his tenure, Director Comey sends unclassified emails from his official FBI.gov email account address to [his Gmail account]. (emphasis added)

The information we have thus far casts doubt on Comey and Rybicki’s statements to the IG about the frequency and nature of their use of non-governmental email accounts. As James Comey recently wrote, “little lies point to bigger lies.”  Stay tuned.

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



Final Response (9 27 18) (Text)

OMB Grants CoA Institute Petition for Rulemaking, Begins Work to Update Its FOIA Regulations

Today, the White House Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”) published a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register to begin the process of updating its Freedom of Information Act (“OMB”) regulations.  By doing so, OMB has effectively granted a 2016 Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) petition for rulemaking.

In the June 2016 petition, CoA Institute urged OMB to update its 30-year-old FOIA fee guidelines, which now conflict with the statute and numerous judicial decisions and to which agencies across the government are required to conform.  We also asked OMB to update its own FOIA regulations, which had not been revised since 1998.  Congress has made at least two important amendments to the FOIA since then that OMB has not incorporated into its regulations.[1]  The impetus for CoA Institute sending this petition was to urge OMB to remove the anachronistic “organized and operated” standard from both the guidance and its own regulations’ definition of a “representative of the news media.”[2]

After being ignored for two years, CoA Institute filed suit claiming OMB had violated the Administrative Procedure Act by failing to respond to the petition.  Spurred to action by that litigation, on June 29, 2018, OMB finally responded.  Although the agency denied the petition to update its 30-year-old FOIA fee guidelines, it stated that it was “in the process of updating its FOIA regulations, including fee regulations, to reflect statutory changes and recent judicial decisions.”

Today, the agency published those proposed updates.  OMB has removed the “organized and operated” standard from its regulations and adopted the statutory definition for a “representative of the news media.”  However, it failed to heed CoA Institute’s advice that “OMB should clarify that, while a fee waiver may focus on the substance of a particular request, the news media fee status analysis “focus[es] on requesters, rather than requests[.]”  CoA Institute also asked OMB to embrace the D.C. Circuit opinion clarifying that the so-called middleman standard, which allowed agencies to deny preferential fee status if they felt the requester was only a middleman between the agency and the ultimate publishing source, was inappropriate.  OMB did not include any mention about the validity of the middleman standard in its new regulations.

Although CoA Institute is gratified that OMB has finally begun the process of updating its own FOIA regulations, it will continue the fight in its ongoing lawsuit to challenge OMB’s refusal to bring its 30-year-old FOIA fee guidelines—to which agencies across the federal government are required to conform—into compliance with the statute.

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

[1] See generally FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 and OPEN Government Act of 2007.

[2] See Cause of Action v. Fed. Trade Comm’n, 799 F.3d 1108 (D.C. Cir. 2015).