Department of Veterans Affairs Discloses 2014 Guidance on Intra-Agency Consultations for FOIA Requests of “Substantial Interest” to Agency Leadership

The Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) has released a February 2014 memorandum reiterating the need for “consultations” on certain Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests, including those of “substantial interest” to the agency’s political leadership.  Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) obtained the record after submitting a disclosure request in the wake of Senate Democrats expressing concern over possible politicization of VA FOIA processes.

The memorandum, which is addressed to “Under Secretaries, Assistant Secretaries, and Other Key Officials,” indicates that VA regulations require intra-agency consultation or referral whenever incoming FOIA requests implicate records that originate with another component or prove to contain “information” of “substantial interest” to another VA office.  While “referral” entails the effective transfer of responsibility for responding to a request, “consultation” refers to discussing the release of particular records.

Consultation within an agency or with other entities can be a positive practice that ensures records are processed in accordance with the law.  Indeed, in some cases, “consultation” is required.  Executive Order 12600, for example, requires an agency to contact a company whenever a requester seeks confidential commercial information potentially exempt under Exemption 4.  Yet consultations occur in less-easily defined situations, too.

The FOIA only mentions “consultation” in the context of defining the “unusual circumstances” that permit an agency to extend its response deadline by ten working days.

[“Unusual circumstances” include] the need for consultation, which shall be conducted with all practicable speed, with another agency having a substantial interest in the determination of the request or among two or more components of the agency having substantial subject-matter interest therein.

Unfortunately, the phrase “substantial interest” is not itself defined.  This is where problems begin.  The Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) guidance on consultation suggests that a “substantial interest” only exists when records either “originate[] with another agency” or contain “information that is of interest to another agency or component.”  The DOJ’s FOIA regulations, and the Office of Information Policy’s model FOIA regulation, while not dispositive, do provide a little more context.  They suggest “consultation” should be limited to cases when another agency (or agency component) originated a record or is “better able to determine whether the record is exempt from disclosure.”

CoA Institute has long sought clarification on the exact nature of a “substantial interest.”  In November 2014, we submitted a public comment to the Department of Defense (“DOD”) arguing that consultation should be restricted to situations where another entity has created a responsive record or is “better positioned to judge the proper application of the FOIA exemptions, given the circumstances of the request or its familiarity with the facts necessary to judge the proper withholding of exempt material.”  Although our proposed definition was admittedly non-ideal—DOD did not accept that portion of our comment—it hinted at the troubling abuse, politicization, and unjustifiable delay that can occur with consultation.

The best example of such abuse and politicization is found with “White House equities” review, which is carried-out as a form of “consultation.”  As CoA Institute has repeatedly documented, however, this form of “consultation” extends far beyond “White House-originated” records or records containing information privileged by White House-controlled privileges.  Instead, pre-production White House review has been extended to almost anything that is potentially embarrassing or politically damaging to the President.  In May 2016, CoA Institute sued eleven agencies and the Office of the White House Counsel in an effort to enjoin the Obama Administration from continuing “White House equities” review, but that lawsuit was dismissed.  It is unclear to what extent President Trump has continued the practice, although at least one other oversight group has uncovered evidence of recent White House review of politically sensitive records from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

As for the VA, the recently disclosed memorandum is silent about the precise meaning of a “substantial interest.”  But, at least for the “substantial interest” of the agency’s political leadership, the memorandum indicated that “[f]ollow-up guidance will be forthcoming.”

This is especially troubling.  Last week, I discussed how DOD failed to address Inspector General recommendations concerning the agency’s so-called “situational awareness” process for notifying political leadership about “significant” FOIA requests that may “generate media interest” or be of “potential interest” to DOD leadership.  I noted that agencies hide behind technical phrases—like “substantial interest” or “situational awareness”—while allowing non-career officials to inappropriately interfere with FOIA processes.  This could be what is happening with the VA.  Why is special “guidance” needed to identify the “substantial interest” that the VA Secretary may have in a specific request?  Does this not hint of the same sort of inappropriate “sensitive” review implemented at countless other agencies?

CoA Institute has appealed the VA Office of the Secretary’s response.  The 2014 memorandum was the only record produced in response to our FOIA request.  The “follow-up guidance” should also have been located and disclosed.  It must be made public.  Other VA offices are still processing portions of our request; the Office of Inspector General, for its part, was unable to locate records about recent investigations into FOIA politicization.  As further information becomes available, we will post additional updates.

Ryan P. Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute

DoD Watchdog Details Agency’s Failure to Address FOIA Shortcomings

The Inspector General (“IG”) for the Department of Defense (“DOD”) recently published its annual compendium of unimplemented recommendations given to various DOD components and military departments in past investigations, audits, and inspections.  The list of unresolved matters is rather lengthy—some issues are more serious, others less so.  Relevant here, the watchdog highlighted two outstanding recommendations concerning the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) and, more specifically, the formalization and publication of Pentagon guidance on “sensitive review.”

Both of these FOIA-related recommendations originate with an August 16, 2016 IG report that was prepared at the request of Senator Ron Johnson, Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (“HSGAC”).  Senator Johnson initiated an investigation in 2015 into interference by political appointees within the Obama Administration in agency FOIA processes.  Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) actively followed the HSGAC inquiry and sued one agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, for refusing to release its response to the Committee.

“Sensitive review” refers to the practice of giving certain FOIA requests extra scrutiny, usually because the records sought are potentially newsworthy or politically embarrassing.  In its most benign form, sensitive review involves notifying an agency’s public affairs team, communications specialists, or political leadership of incoming requests and outgoing productions.  At its worst, it entails the active involvement of non-career officials in processing and redacting records, which results in significant delays and sometimes completely prevents the disclosure of records that the public has a right to access.

Sensitive review has been increasingly in the news.  A week ago, I described CoA Institute’s new investigation into politicized FOIA at the Department of Veterans Affairs, following allegations raised by Democrats on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.  Last month, I explained how an official from the Environmental Protection Agency told Ranking Member Elijah Cummings at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that the Trump White House had supposedly added an “extra lawyer of review” for “politically charged” or “complex requests.”  And, earlier this year, I revealed records exposing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration for heightening sensitive review by, among other things, targeting attorney and media requesters.

Although recent news reports suggest that “sensitive review” is a novel practice, that is not so.  Intra-agency FOIA politicization, and related practices such as “White House equities” review, did not originate with the Trump White House, but date to the Obama Administration and beyond.  Indeed, as I have explained here and here, the Obama White House was particularly notorious for its efforts to delay and block disclosure of politically damaging or otherwise newsworthy records.  President Trump is taking advantage of President Obama’s legacy of secrecy.

All this is confirmed by the case of the DOD.  In its 2016 report, the IG explained that it had failed to identify any instances of “noncareer officials” either “adversely affecting” or “unduly influencing” the agency’s FOIA process.  But the watchdog’s cautious language and technical phrases failed to mask other troubling practices, including a special “situational awareness process” for “significant” requests.  DOD guidelines governing that process still have not been incorporated into the agency’s FOIA regulations, FOIA manual, or FOIA directive.  (The IG also faulted DOD for failing to update its regulations in light of the Open Government Act of 2007 and Executive Order 13392, but that was remedied with the finalization of new regulations in February 2018.)

CoA Institute has obtained copies of two versions of DOD’s “situational awareness” protocol (here and here), one of which dates to December 2012.  Both records similarly define “significant” requests—that is, requests deserving of special treatment—to include anything likely to “generate media interest” or be of “potential interest” to DOD leadership.  Requests implicating Members of Congress or President Obama, even during his time as a senator, also were included.

In addition to “situational” notification, component FOIA officers were expected to provide weekly updates on “significant” requests to the front office and delay any response or production of records until clearance was provided by departmental disclosure leadership.

This requirement was emphasized for “White House or Congressionally related” FOIA requests.

Although alerting or involving agency leadership, including political appointees, in FOIA administration does not violate the law per se—and may, in rare cases, be appropriate—there is never any assurance that the practice will not lead to severe delays of months and even years.  The danger for politicization is evident.  “Notification” and “situational awareness” can too easily lead to political leadership controlling the disclosure of public records.  That result cannot be tolerated.

Although DOD has yet to incorporate its sensitive review protocol into formal and publicly available guidance, it is also unknown whether the policy has changed or been enhanced in any way in recent years.  Considering the unresolved IG recommendations, CoA Institute has submitted a FOIA request to DOD seeking further information.  We will continue to report on the matter as records become available.

Ryan P. Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute



2018 08 08 Final and Approved DOD Sensitive Review FOIA Request (Text)

Democratic Senators Seek Records about “Sensitive Review” from VA, Ask Inspector General to Open Investigation into FOIA Politicization

Last week, a group of eight Democratic Senators, led by Ranking Member Jon Tester of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, wrote to the Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) to express concern over the possible politicization of the agency’s Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) processes.  The senators requested various records concerning the involvement of political appointees in the FOIA decision-making process, as well as other “sensitive review”-type policies.  They also wrote to the VA’s Inspector General to request an investigation into these allegations.  Among other things, the legislators sought “an assessment of the role that political appointees play in the FOIA process, what types of oversight exist to ensure employees are providing all responsive material, and who makes determinations about what is or is not responsive to a request[.]”

Sensitive FOIA review has been increasingly in the news.  The most recent reports have focused on the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”).  According to EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson, the Trump Administration has added an “extra layer of review” for “politically charged” or “complex requests.”  Other officials claim that “sensitive review,” and similar practices such as “White House equities” review, actually originated with the Obama White House.  This latter claim is better supported by the historical record, as I (here and here) and others (here) have repeatedly argued.  The Obama Administration was notorious for its efforts to delay and block the disclosure of politically damaging or otherwise newsworthy records.  This is not to say the Trump Administration is innocent—it has likewise contributed to obfuscation and an overall erosion of transparency.  My posts earlier this year on sensitive review at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration demonstrate as much.

In the case of the VA, the agency’s watchdog previously argued, in 2010 and 2015, that there has not been regular inference by political appointees in the FOIA process.  But the public has long known of internal practices at the VA that likely contribute to politicization.  In August 2007, for example, the agency issued a directive concerning the processing of “high visibility” or “sensitive” FOIA requests that implicate potentially embarrassing or newsworthy records.

The potential for politicization only worsened during the Obama Administration.  An October 2013 memorandum instructed all Central Office components to clear FOIA responses and productions through Jim Horan, Director of the VA FOIA Service.  (Mr. Horan is still part of the leadership in the Office of Privacy and Records Management.)  This clearance process imposed a “temporary requirement” for front office review—although it is unknown whether the practice continues—and entailed a “sensitivity determination” leading to unnamed “specific procedures.”

Regardless of which party or president controls the government, sensitive review raises serious concerns.  Although alerting or involving political appointees in FOIA administration does not violate the law per se—and may, in rare cases, be appropriate—there is never any assurance that the practice will not lead to severe delays of months and even years.  At its worst, sensitive FOIA review leads to intentionally inadequate searches, politicized document review, improper record redaction, and incomplete disclosure.  When politically sensitive or potentially embarrassing records are at issue, politicians and bureaucrats will always have an incentive to err on the side of secrecy and non-disclosure.

Considering the new allegations of FOIA troubles at the VA, CoA Institute has submitted a FOIA request seeking further information about the agency’s sensitive review policy.  We will continue to report on the matter as information becomes available.

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




 

Cause of Action Institute Sues DOJ for Refusing to Release Comey Emails

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Aug. 1, 2018 – Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) today sued the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for failing to respond to three FOIA requests pertaining to the use of personal email by former FBI Director James Comey, former FBI Chief of Staff James Rybicki, and DOJ’s Director of Public of Affairs Sarah Isgur Flores.

The recent Office of Inspector General (OIG) report on the Hillary Clinton email scandal disclosed that Comey had used his personal email to conduct official business, but that OIG was, “never given access to all the work-related emails.” Comey claimed he either forwarded emails from his personal account to his official account or to Chief of Staff Rybicki. In an unrelated incident last year, Flores was cited as using her Gmail account to issue a statement on behalf of the Attorney General in response to a Washington Post article. CoA Institute filed three FOIAs relating to these matters, and in each case, DOJ failed to respond within the statutory timeframe.

Cause of Action Institute Counsel Ryan Mulvey:

“There is no reason for the U.S. Department of Justice to stonewall and ignore these FOIA requests. The requested emails, even though created or received on personal devices or in personal accounts, are agency records and the public has every right to access them. It should never have been necessary for us to sue the DOJ, the nation’s chief law enforcement body, to force it to abide by its obligations under the FOIA.”

The three FOIA requests include:

  • June 14, 2018 – Office of Inspector General FOIA request for “all emails sent or received by former FBI Director James Comey or former FBI Chief of Staff James Rybicki on a personal email account … conducting official government business, that were acquired or reviewed by” OIG.
  • June 14, 2018 – FBI FOIA request for, “all emails sent or received by former FBI Director James Comey or former FBI Chief of Staff James Rybicki on a personal email account … conducting official government business…”
  • March 2, 2017 – Office of Information Policy FOIA request for, “any email, including attachments, sent by Sarah Isgur Flores on or about March 2, 2017 from a non-governmental email account, containing a statement in response to news reports that Attorney General Jeff Session met with the Russian Ambassador during the 2016 Presidential Election.” CoA Institute also asked for, “all other emails, including attachments, sent or received by Sarah Isgur Flores on a non-government email account that were for the purpose of conducting official government business.”

The full complaint can be viewed below.

About Cause of Action Institute

Cause of Action Institute is a 501(c)(3) non-profit working to enhance individual and economic liberty by limiting the power of the administrative state to make decisions that are contrary to freedom and prosperity by advocating for a transparent and accountable government free from abuse.

Media Contact:

Matt Frendewey
matt.frendewey@causeofaction.org
202-699-2018

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Federal Judge Confirms Agencies’ FRA Record Recovery Efforts Must Include Reaching Out to Third-Party Email Providers

Last Friday, Judge Trevor McFadden of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted the federal government’s second motion to dismiss a lawsuit to compel Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Archivist David Ferriero to fulfill their statutory obligations under the Federal Records Act (“FRA”) to recover former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s work-related email records from a personal account hosted by AOL, Inc.  Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) filed the lawsuit in October 2016 after then-Secretary John Kerry and Archivist Ferriero failed to act on CoA Institute’s FRA notice and Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request.

Although Judge McFadden’s dismissal is a technical defeat, albeit on procedural grounds, CoA Institute’s work in this case, and in another FRA case involving Hillary Clinton, is still a success.  Taken together, these cases have the raised the bar for what federal agencies must do when records go missing.  In future cases, agencies will be required, at the least, to reach out directly to third-party email providers in an attempt to recover work-related email records and may not rely on self-serving statements from agency officials that such records no longer exist.

In the recent motion, the government again sought dismissal on mootness grounds, arguing that Secretary Powell no longer had access to the account he used during his tenure at the State Department and, moreover, it would be “technologically impossible” for AOL to recover any records from its servers.  Correspondence from Secretary Powell and various AOL employees was used to support the government’s claims.  But the agency reached out to Secretary Powell and AOL only after Judge McFadden rejected a similar motion to dismiss in January 2018, holding that there was still a “substantial likelihood,” based on the record, that Secretary Powell’s work-related email could be recovered if the State Department were to leverage the full law enforcement authority of the federal government.  Judge McFadden looked to the Department of Justice’s successful recovery of former Secretary Hillary Clinton’s email from computer hard drives and mobile devices as a guide.

In opposition to the government’s second motion, and in support of its own motion for summary judgment, CoA Institute argued that the government had failed to provide enough evidence to establish fatal loss of the email records at issue, particularly since Secretary Pompeo and Archivist Ferriero continued to refuse to involve the Attorney General in compulsory or forensic recovery efforts.

This time around, however, the judge was convinced that the government had done enough and additional efforts would be “pointless.”  Nevertheless, in future cases, agencies will need to undertake substantial efforts to prove fatal loss, even if that means contacting third-party commercial communications providers to determine the recoverability of records on their servers or networks.

The alienation of federal records will likely continue with the fast-paced development of technology and alternative means of communication within the federal bureaucracy.  CoA Institute is committed to ensuring that the law follows these developments and holds government employees accountable.

Ryan Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute.

EPA responds to House OGR Democrats, arguing FOIA “sensitive review” originated with the Obama Administration

Earlier this week, Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (“OGR”) released details about how officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) admitted to subjecting politically sensitive Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests to layers of extra scrutiny, including review by political appointees.  OGR Ranking Member Elijah Cummings even asked Chairman Trey Gowdy to issue a subpoena compelling the EPA to hand over various records documenting its FOIA processes.

Since Cause of Action Institute’s (“CoA Institute’s) coverage of this issue on Monday, there have been two important developments.  First, on Tuesday, Chairman Gowdy denied OGR Democrats their request for a subpoena.  Second, and more importantly, reports have revealed that Kevin Minoli, the EPA Principal Deputy General Counsel and Designated Agency Ethics Official, sent a letter to OGR Democrats on Sunday, arguing that the agency’s sensitive review policies actually originated with the Obama Administration.

According to Minoli, the EPA created a “FOIA Expert Assistance Team,” or “FEAT,” in 2013 to provide “strategic direction and project management assistance” on “complex FOIA requests.”  Minoli explained that a FOIA request could be classified as “complex,” for FEAT purposes, if someone in the agency’s leadership requested it to be so.  FEAT coordinated “White House equities” review and also alerted the Office of Public Affairs, as well as “senior leaders” within the EPA, of particularly noteworthy requests through its so-called “awareness review” process.

The EPA’s latest clarification vindicates CoA Institute’s repeated warnings (here and here) not to let political judgments about the Trump EPA’s policy agenda interfere with understanding and criticism of long-standing problems of FOIA administration, including the politicization that inevitably results from “sensitive review” processes.  To be sure, it appears the Trump Administration has worsened the problem, particularly at the EPA.  But the groundwork for this sort of FOIA politicization was laid by President Obama.  Indeed, Minoli claims OGR’s investigative work during the Obama-era was part of the then-Administration’s impetus for creating FEAT.

Regardless of which party or president is responsible for introducing FOIA sensitive review at the EPA or any other agency, the practice still raises serious concerns.  Although alerting or involving political appointees in FOIA administration does not violate the law per se—and may, in rare cases be appropriate—there is never any assurance that the practice will not lead to severe delays of months and even years.  At its worst, sensitive FOIA review leads to intentionally inadequate searches, politicized document review, improper record redaction, and incomplete disclosure.  When politically sensitive or potentially embarrassing records are at issue, politicians and bureaucrats will always have an incentive to err on the side of secrecy and non-disclosure.

Considering these developments, CoA Institute has submitted a FOIA request to the EPA seeking further information about FEAT and the agency’s sensitive review policy.  We will continue to report on the matter as information becomes available.

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

EPA Chief of Staff describes agency’s sensitive review process for “politically charged” FOIA requests

Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (“OGR”) revealed new details last week about the processing of politically sensitive Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests at the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”).  According to The Hill, Ryan Jackson, Chief of Staff to former Administrator Scott Pruitt and current Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, explained to “congressional investigators” how “‘politically charged’ or ‘complex’ requests . . . get an extra layer of review before being fulfilled, likely delaying” production of requested records.  Jackson specifically discussed how the EPA determined that one Sierra Club FOIA request—described as a “fishing expedition”—was improperly broad.  Other requests were delayed so that the disclosure of responsive records could “coincide with similar releases.”  This politicization also benefitted requesters sympathetic to the Administration; one request from the National Pork Producers Council was “expedited” due to Jackson’s intervention when he set up a meeting with EPA policy officials.

Reports about FOIA politicization at the EPA are not new.  At the beginning of May 2018, Politico reported that “top aides” had leaked internal emails showing the role of officials within the Office of the Administrator in reviewing “documents collected for most or all FOIA requests regarding [Pruitt’s] activities[.]”  The apparent aim of this “sensitive review” was to limit the release of embarrassing or politically damaging records.  House Democrats at OGR stepped into the game in early June 2018, demanding various records concerning the EPA’s policies for implementing the FOIA.  To date, the agency has pointed only to publicly available records, thus prompting Ranking Member Elijah Cummings to ask Chairman Trey Gowdy to exercise his subpoena authority and compel a substantive response.  (Incidentally, the EPA has previously ignored congressional records requests about FOIA politicization, as we explained in May 2014.)

The entire transparency community should be concerned over the heightening of sensitive review at the EPA.  But it also is important to keep politics from clouding our understanding and criticism of the practice.  As I wrote in May 2018:

It is true that the Trump Administration has enhanced sensitive review processes at the EPA.  Other agencies have witnessed a similar expansion of sensitive review, as Cause of Action Institute’s investigation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration demonstrates.  But it would be a mistake—as I argued last December—to think that the Obama White House was any better at avoiding FOIA politicization.  The EPA has a long and terrible track record for anti-transparency behavior.  Consider the agency’s blatant weaponization of fee waivers.  According to data compiled by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and reported by Reason and The Washington Examiner, the Obama EPA regularly denied public interest fee waivers to organizations critical of the agency’s regulatory activities and the White House’s policy agenda.  By contrast, left-leaning groups nearly always (92% of the time) received fee waivers.

Sensitive review, along with other forms of FOIA politicization, such as “White House equities” review, is a cherished tradition for both the Left and the Right.  Regardless of which party controls the Executive Branch, the natural tendency will always be to keep embarrassing or politically sensitive records out of the hands of the public and—most especially—the news media.  Cause of Action Institute itself was regularly subject to “sensitive review” during President Obama’s tenure, and we continue to be singled out for “special” treatment under President Trump, as records from the Federal Aviation Administration have shown.  Regardless, we remain committed to exposing the practice of sensitive review and advocating for reform to combat all FOIA politicization.

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