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.

 

SEC Adopts CoA Institute’s Recommendations in Updated FOIA Regulations

The Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) finalized new Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) regulations today, adopting two revisions from a comment that Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) proposed in January 2018.  The FOIA allows for the disclosure of records of federal agencies, including documents, emails, and reports, and is an essential tool for promoting government transparency.

CoA Institute made three recommendations in response to the SEC’s proposed rulemaking.  First, we urged the agency to remove outdated “organized and operated” language from its definition of “representative of the news media.”  Such language has been used in the past to deny FOIA fee waivers to organizations like CoA Institute that investigate agency waste, fraudulent activity, cronyism, and wrongdoing.  In 2015, we argued Cause of Action v. Federal Trade Commission before the D.C. Circuit, which resulted in a landmark ruling that invalidated the “organized and operated” requirement.

In Cause of Action, the D.C. Circuit clarified proper fee category definitions and the application of fees for FOIA requests.  CoA Institute cited this case in its comment to the SEC and the agency concurred with our proposal to remove the outdated “organized and operated” language from its definition of a news media requester.  The FTC also acknowledged the D.C. Circuit’s landmark decision in its final rule.

Second, CoA Institute recommended eliminating “case-by-case” fee category determinations.  Under the original rule proposed by the SEC, FOIA offices would “determine whether to grant a requester news media status on a case-by-case basis based upon the requester’s intended use of the requested material.”  CoA Institute again cited Cause of Action to argue that the focus of the fee waiver inquiry should be on “requesters, rather than [their] requests.”  The SEC agreed and removed the restrictive language.

Finally, CoA Institute recommended that the SEC recognize that a news media requester may use “editorial skills” to turn “raw materials into a distinct work” when writing documents such as press releases and editorial comments.  This understanding broadens the potential pool of news media requesters and our recommendation tracks language from the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Cause of Action.  Although, in this respect, we did not recommend any specific changes to the final rule the SEC nevertheless acknowledged our comments by stating that it “will consider Cause of Action and any other relevant precedents in applying the fee provisions in its regulations.”

Americans have an interest in living free and prosperous lives without the interference of arbitrary and abusive executive power.  One of the ways CoA Institute monitors government overreach is by fighting for access to information on the federal government’s activities.  Our successful comment is a small but important victory in our work to ensure a transparent government that works for the benefit of all Americans.

Chris Klein is a Research Fellow at Cause of Action Institute

CoA Institute Files FOIA Lawsuit for Internet Browsing Records of OMB’s Mulvaney and USDA’s Perdue

WASHINGTON, D.C. – JUNE 26, 2018– Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) sued the White House Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”) and the Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) today for failure to disclose records reflecting top officials’ Internet browsing history.  The records at issue—which were the subject of two July 2017 Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests (here and here)—include the web browsing histories of OMB Director John Mulvaney and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, as well as their communications directors, on any government-issued electronic devices.

Cause of Action Institute Counsel Ryan Mulvey said, “The taxpayer foots the bill for the government’s Internet usage; the taxpayer deserves to know whether bureaucrats are behaving as proper stewards of their online resources.  Agencies must be held accountable for their refusal to disclose vital information about the operations of the administrative state.  The public has a right to know what websites are being accessed in the course of official agency business.  Not only would such records reveal the sorts of resources that have influenced decision-making, but they also could expose questionable or inappropriate online activity by government employees.”

To date, OMB has failed to respond to CoA Institute’s 2017 FOIA request.  USDA has responded but refuses to release the requested records because it believes they are not under agency “control” and would entail the “creation” of a new record.  CoA Institute disputes both claims.

The operation of an Internet browser typically creates an electronic record of the user’s online activity.  This record is stored locally and is accessible through the browser’s “History” function.  In this case, the requested records were created on government computers, integrated into their file systems, and can be used by agency officials as they see fit, subject to any applicable record retention laws.  This means that such records fall under “agency” control and should be available to the public, particularly given past scandals involving the abuse and misuse of Internet-based programs.

The full complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, can be found here.

For more information, please contact Mary Beth Gombita, mbgcomms@gmail.com.

GAO Report Highlights Agencies Failing to Implement the FOIA

A report released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) provides alarming details about the dearth of agency efforts to fully implement the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”).  GAO previewed a draft of its report in March 2018 when its Director of Information Technology Management Issues, David Powner, testified at a hearing on FOIA compliance before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.  At the time, GAO published a concurrent report on how federal courts regularly fail to refer cases to the Office of Special Counsel (“OSC”) to determine whether disciplinary action is warranted in instances where officials have acted arbitrarily or capriciously in withholding records.  (Cause of Action Institute’s (“CoA Institute”) commentary on that issue can be found here.)  Yesterday’s report finalizes GAO’s findings and incorporates feedback from the eighteen agencies in the sample subject to the audit.

Many Agencies Have Failed to Update Regulations and Appoint Chief FOIA Officers

One aspect of GAO’s audit involved reviewing whether the eighteen agencies properly implemented various requirements introduced by the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 and the OPEN Government Act of 2007.  Those amendments to the FOIA require agencies, inter alia, to designate chief FOIA officers, publish timely and comprehensive regulations, and update response letters to indicate things such as an extended, 90-day appeal period.  GAO also evaluated what efforts were underway by the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Information Policy to develop a government-wide FOIA portal.

The chart above, which is taken from the GAO report, encapsulates some of the unfortunate findings.  Even though it is a statutory requirement, five of the eighteen agencies have not designated a chief FOIA officer in line with applicable requirements (e.g., appointing a senior official at the Assistant Secretary or equivalent level).  Chief FOIA officers are responsible for monitoring agency-wide compliance with the FOIA, making recommendations for improving FOIA processing, assessing the need for regulatory revisions each year, and serving as a liaison with the Department of Justice Office of Information Policy, the Office of Government Information Services, and the Chief FOIA Officers Council.  It remains unclear why some agencies are reticent to comply with this aspect of the FOIA.

Another disturbing finding is that few agencies in the sample timely updated and published regulations to implement the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016.  At least five agencies have deficient regulations—such as the Department of State—or have not bothered to issue a preliminary rulemaking—such as the White House Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”).  Agencies offered several reasons for why they have not complied with the law, with most citing a lengthy internal review process.  The State Department explained that it had just finished updating its regulations before passage of the FOIA Improvement Act.  The U.S. African Development Foundation, however, claimed that it did not even need “to disclose information regarding fees in their regulation” because it “has not charged a fee for unusual circumstances.”

OMB’s failure to satisfy GAO’s criteria for proper FOIA regulations is unsurprising and indicative of a general disregard for regulatory compliance with the FOIA at the agency.  For example, for the past few years, CoA Institute has carefully tracked whether agency FOIA regulations have been updated to include the current statutory definition of a “representative of the news media.”  Prior to the D.C. Circuit’s landmark 2015 decision in Cause of Action v. Federal Trade Commission, many agencies relied on OMB’s Uniform Freedom of Information Fee Schedule and Guidelines to impose an “organized and operated” standard that deprived nascent media groups of preferential fee treatment.  The OMB Guidelines, which were written in 1987, have never been updated, despite requests from the FOIA Advisory Committee and the Archivist of the United States.  CoA Institute thus filed its own petition for rulemaking on the issue in June 2016, followed by a lawsuit last November after OMB failed to respond.

Agencies Have Made Little Progress on FOIA Backlogs

Another aspect of GAO’s audit involved examining whether the eighteen agencies had made any headway in reducing their FOIA request backlog, as well as cataloging the statutes used in conjunction with Exemption 3 to withhold records from the public.  GAO found that few agencies had managed to reduce their outstanding backlog.  One major reason for the lack of progress on reducing backlogs was the failure of most agencies to implement “comprehensive plans” laying any sort of strategy.  As for GAO’s catalogue of statues used to withhold information exempt as a matter of law, the most commonly cited provisions were 8 U.S.C. § 1202(f), which concerns records about the issuance or refusal of a visa, and 26 U.S.C. § 6103, which protects the confidentiality of tax returns and return information.

GAO’s audit is an important indication of how far many agencies must go to comply fully with the FOIA.  This is particularly true insofar as GAO’s findings can be generalized across the entire administrative state.  Congress, the transparency community, and the American public must exert even greater pressure on Executive Branch agencies to meet their obligations under the law and to improve their commitment to open government.

Ryan P. Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute

Federal District Court Excuses IRS’s Refusal to Search for Email Records Concerning White House Interference with the FOIA

Last week, Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued an order denying Cause of Action Institute’s (“CoA Institute”) cross-motion for summary judgment in a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) brought against the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”).  The opinion was long awaited—summary judgment briefing ended over a year-and-an-half ago.  Although we do not intend to appeal the decision, it is worth highlighting some issues with Judge Sullivan’s opinion and the IRS’s arguments.  The case is a fine example of how courts too frequently defer to agencies when it comes to policing their compliance with the FOIA.

Background: “White House equities” review and FOIA politicization

In March 2014, CoA Institute published a report revealing the existence of a non-public memorandum from then-White House Counsel Gregory Craig that directed department and agency general counsels to send to the White House for consultation all records involving “White House equities” when collected in response to any sort of document request.  This secret memo stands in stark contrast to President Obama’s January 2009 directive on transparency, as well as Attorney General Holder’s March 2009 FOIA memo.  Although originally praised as setting the bar for open government, the Washington Post eventually described the Obama Administration as one of the most secretive governments in American history.

As part of the system of politicized FOIA review established under the “White House equities” policy, whenever a requester sought access to records deemed politically sensitive, potentially embarrassing, or otherwise newsworthy, the agency processing the request would forward copies of those records to a White House attorney for pre-production review.  Not only did the entire process represent an abdication of agency responsibility for the administration of the FOIA, but it severely delayed agency compliance with the FOIA’s deadlines.  As we have previously suggested, “White House equities” review likely continues under the Trump Administration.

The specific FOIA request at issue in this case, which was submitted to the IRS in May 2013, sought records of communications between IRS officials and the White House reflecting “White House equities” consultations.  Similar requests were sent to eleven other agencies.  All those agencies produced the requested records; only the IRS failed to locate a single relevant document.  And the IRS only communicated its failure to find any responsive records two years after CoA Institute submitted its request and filed a lawsuit.

Why the IRS failed to conduct an adequate search for records

Our argument for the inadequacy of the IRS’s search for records reflecting “White House equities” consultations focused on several points, but two were especially important.  First, the IRS failed to search its own FOIA office—the most likely custodian of the records and issue.  Second, the IRS improperly refused to search for any responsive email correspondence within the Office of Disclosure.

The IRS inexplicably limited its search efforts to the Office of Legislative Affairs, a sub-component of the Office of Chief Counsel, and the Executive Secretariat Correspondence Office, which handles communications with the IRS Commissioner.  The agency offered no evidence that it sent search memoranda to its FOIA office, which is part of the “Privacy, Governmental Liaison, and Disclosure” or “PGLD.”  In fact, the IRS effectively admitted that it had foregone a search of the Office of Disclosure because a single senior employee testified that he did not believe any responsive records existed.  And because “White House equities” review was not mentioned in the Internal Revenue Manual, the FOIA officer assigned to CoA Institute’s request determined that consultations with the White House would never have taken place.

The IRS also refused to search individual email accounts within the Office of Disclosure because it would be too “burdensome.” Remarkably, the IRS claimed it would “take one IRS IT person at least 13 years” to capture the correspondence of all 165 employees within the Office of Disclosure.  Yet the IRS offered no explanation for why other reasonable options to search email did not exist, such as requiring individual employees to “self-search” email, conducting a preliminary sample search of individuals within the Office of Disclosure most likely to have responsive records, or making use of e-discovery tools like “Clearwell” and “Encase.”

The Court’s Flawed Opinion and Hyper-Deference to the IRS

One major flaw in the Court’s decision concerns its uncritical acceptance of a single IRS attorney’s belief about the existence of responsive records within the Office of Disclosure.  Although the IRS admittedly conducted a keyword search of its tracking system for incoming FOIA requests, it refused to send out search memoranda or engage in other typical search efforts.  The IRS instead relied on the declaration of John Davis, Deputy Associate Director of Disclosure, who claimed that he had never heard of “White House equities” and was unaware of White House consultations ever taking place.  On this basis alone, the IRS concluded it was “unreasonable” to conduct a more vigorous search.  The Court accepted this reliance without any real explanation when it should have given more consideration to the text of the Craig Memo, which was addressed to the entire Executive Branch—including the IRS—and the fact that the eleven co-defendants in the same case all produced responsive records—nearly all of which were email chains.

As for the search of individual email accounts, the Court yet again uncritically deferred to the IRS’s bizarre claim that it would take thirteen years to process CoA Institute’s FOIA request.

In deferring to the IRS, the Court failed to address the IRS’s practice of conducting email searches by manually inspecting the content of individual hard drives, a central reason why an email search would take so preposterously long.  This practice, which requires the IRS to warehouse a lot of old computer equipment, has been repeatedly criticized by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration because it could lead to violations of records management laws.

Additionally, some doubt exists, based on information independently received by CoA Institute from IRS employees, as to the accuracy of the IRS’s claims regarding its ability to conduct an agency- or component-wide search of its email system.  Because FOIA cases rarely make it to trial, it is nearly impossible to pin the IRS down on the accuracy of its claims.  Regardless, the IRS has certainly made a habit of regularly evading its disclosure obligations, a habit buttressed in this instance by an overly deferential judiciary.

Ryan Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute

CoA Institute Calls on General Services Administration to Revise Proposed FOIA Regulations

Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) submitted a comment today to the General Services Administration (“GSA”) concerning the agency’s proposed rule revising its Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) regulations.  CoA Institute explained that the planned changes could cause confusion by directing agency staff to interpret the FOIA statute and GSA’s implementing regulations in light of outdated fee guidelines published by the White House Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”).

OMB published its Uniform Freedom of Information Fee Schedule and Guidelines in 1987.  Although the FOIA requires an agency to promulgate its fee schedule in conformity with the OMB Guidelines, they are no longer authoritative because they conflict with the statutory text, as amended by Congress, and judicial authorities.  Over the past thirty years, OMB has made no effort to revise the Guidelines.  They should not be used as a reference point for the proper administration of the FOIA.

One problematic aspect of the OMB Guidelines is the definition of a “representative of the news media.”  The current statutory definition of this fee category, which was introduced by the OPEN Government Act of 2007, differs from the definition provided by OMB.  Indeed, the OMB definition, which incorporates an “organized and operated” standard, has long been one of the more contentious aspects of the OMB Guidelines.  In 2015, however, the D.C. Circuit issued a landmark decision in Cause of Action v. Federal Trade Commission clarifying that OMB’s definition had been superseded by Congress.

The OMB Guidelines also have been rendered obsolete by other jurisprudential developments.  For this reason, in 2016, the FOIA Advisory Committee and Archivist of the United States called on OMB to update its fee guidance.  CoA Institute filed a petition for rulemaking on the issue, too.  Last November, we filed a lawsuit to compel the agency to provide a response to that petition.  Our lawsuit is still pending.  Until the OMB Guidelines have been revised to reflect modern circumstances and the actual text of the FOIA, no agency should direct its staff to consult them in any way as an authoritative guide to interpreting the law.

Ryan Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute