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).

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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