Investigation Update: The VA continues to subject certain FOIA requests to “sensitive review,” but the agency is keeping records about the practice secret

Over the past year, Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) has been investigating the Department of Veterans Affairs for its continued politicization (here, here, and here) of the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”).  That politicization takes the form of “sensitive review,” which refers generally to the practice of giving certain FOIA requests extra scrutiny.  Sensitive review usually entails an additional layer of review or “consultation” with interested parties before potentially embarrassing or politically sensitive records are released to the public.  At its best, it almost always causes delay.  At its worst, it leads to intentionally inadequate searches, politicized document review, improper redaction, and incomplete disclosure. Learn More

Cause of Action Institute Sues VA for Failing to Release Documents Concerning Tomah Medical Center

2017 Pharmacy Malfunction Could Have Put Veterans Lives At-Risk

Washington, D.C. (Feb. 19, 2019) – Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute) today filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department Veteran Affairs for failing to properly respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request relating to the scandal-ridden Tomah VA Medical Center. The FOIA request, filed more than a year ago, concerned pharmacy operations that could have put countless veterans’ lives at risk.

John Vecchione, president and CEO of Cause of Action Institute:

“Our nation’s veterans deserve the utmost care and respect, and news reports of the Tomah VA Medical Center’s pharmacy center distributing potentially spoiled medicines are deeply concerning. Our veterans and taxpayers demand full transparency about existing and previous challenges concerning this facility and the services the Tomah VA provides to our veterans. Cause of Action Institute is dedicated to exposing corruption and holding government officials accountable, and ensuring our veterans receive the care, concern, and respect they deserve.”

Background:

In 2018, Cause of Action Institute submitted a FOIA request to the Tomah VA Medical Center after news reports indicated the center’s outpatient pharmacy center had suffered a “climate-control malfunction” resulting in temperatures in the facility housing medication reaching “97 degrees for at least an hour.” The high temperatures at the facility led to spoilage of the pharmacy’s medical stock, but VA officials continued to distribute medicine “for about four hours.” CoA Institute submitted a FOIA request for all records concerning the failure of the climate control system, as well as efforts to investigate the improper dispensing of potentially damaged medicines.

In May 2018, the VA Great Lakes Health Care System, which oversees the Tomah VA Medical Center, responded to CoA Institute’s FOIA, but withheld and redacted countless documents. CoA Institute filed a timely appeal on Aug. 6, 2018, explaining that the agency had “improperly relied on Exemptions 3, 5, and 6; failed to segregate non-exempt material from responsible records; failed to meet its burden under the FOIA’s “foreseeable harm” standard; improperly redacted portions of records as “non-responsive”; and failed to conduct an adequate search for responsive records.”

To date, the VA has failed to respond to the appeal despite numerous attempts to remind the agency of its statutory responsibility to respond in a timely manner.

Additional Documents:

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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.

Media Contact: Matt Frendewey, media@causeofaction.org 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congressional Inquiries into the VA are the First Steps Towards Reforming the Agency

We recently published a blog post urging newly confirmed Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) Secretary Robert Wilkie to mitigate the cultural plagues preventing the VA from operating as the functional and ethically organized agency that our veterans deserve.  Reports published last month from the Washington Post and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) found several problems within the VA including politicization, retaliation against whistleblowers, impunity for senior officials, and an overall lack of transparency.  The VA’s problems won’t be fixed overnight, but external pressures for reform within the agency should hopefully spur necessary changes.

Fortunately, there appear to be signs of progress on the reform front with several new congressional inquiries.  At the end of July, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle wrote letters to express concern about the VA’s toxic culture and to seek further information about the agency’s ongoing problems.

  • As Cause of Action Institute Counsel Ryan Mulvey discussed last week, eight Democratic Senators, led by Ranking Member Jon Tester of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veteran’s Affairs wrote to the VA on July 25th to express concern about the possible politicization of the agency’s Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) policies. The senators sent a concurrent letter to the VA’s watchdog, Inspector General Michael J. Missal, requesting an investigation in their allegations: “[FOIA] is the route through which media and other interested parties get answers and information after their requests to [the] VA about policies and initiatives have gone unanswered.”
  • On July 26th, Representatives Tim Walz (D-MN), Mark Takano (D-CA), and Kathleen Rice (D-NY) authored a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions referring former Acting Secretary Peter O’Rourke for investigation for “alleged perjury, or withholding information from Congress, or making otherwise unlawful statements in testimony and communications before the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.” This letter comes one month after O’Rourke falsely claimed he had authority over the VA Inspector General—an independent entity that ensures investigators can conduct their work without fear of reprisal by agency leadership.
  • Finally, on July 30th, a bipartisan coalition of congressmen wrote to Secretary Wilkie asking him to implement the GAO’s recommendations from their report:

“To ensure the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) can fulfill its important mission, it is vital that its work force is properly trained, led, and accountable.  To that end we call your attention to the recent [GAO] report . . . and urge the VA to immediately implement the recommendations outlined in that report . . . The GAO’s investigation uncovered serious issues with the VA’s record-keeping, its protection of whistleblowers, and its handling allegations of misconduct, waste, fraud, and abuse.”

I have previously discussed the GAO’s sixteen recommendations in an earlier blog post.  Of those sixteen recommendations, the VA concurred with nine of them and partially concurred with another five.  The congressional letter explains that immediate implementation of the GAO’s recommendations is necessary because the agency must encourage trust and openness in its culture.

These letters address different aspects of improvement needed at the VA.  Senator Tester’s letters highlight the possible politicization of how information is made available to the public.  The letter to Attorney General Sessions asks the VA to hold its senior officials to the same standards as their subordinates—one of the most prominent issues covered in the GAO report.  And finally, the letter to Secretary Wilkie underscores a necessary criticism of the VA: the primary role of the agency is to care for Americans injured or traumatized while defending our nation and, as such, it is unacceptable for agency leadership to tolerate misconduct, let alone encourage it.

However, we should view these signs of progress with just a bit of skepticism.  Senator Tester and the other Democrats on the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs have asked preliminary questions regarding politicization in the FOIA process, which is good, but what happens next? Will they continue to hold the VA accountable for their culture and leadership?  Or will they move on to another issue?  Will Attorney General Jeff Sessions open an investigation to determine whether O’Rourke made unlawful statements in providing false testimony, or will the bipartisan coalition fall upon deaf ears?

Cause of Action Institute will continue to investigate VA mismanagement  and the agency’s efforts to adopt GAO’s recommendations.  But we will also watch the congressmen who have expressed interest in reforming the plagued agency.  The authors of the letters to Attorney General Sessions and VA officials should be applauded for their inquiries, but they should also be committed to following through to the complete reform of the VA.

Chris Klein is a Research Fellow at Cause of Action Institute

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.




 

Now is the Time for VA to Change its Culture

Yesterday, the Senate confirmed Pentagon official Robert Wilkie as the new Secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs (“Department” or “VA”). Wilkie takes over a federal agency plagued with a culture of toxicity, politicization, and misconduct. Although recent news reports and investigations of VA leadership have been a public relations nightmare for the agency, the prescription for success for the Secretary is rather simple: implement a culture change from the top-down to develop a VA that both performs its duty to veterans and operates in an ethical and productive manner.

A recent Washington Post report found that acting VA secretary Peter O’Rourke removed or reassigned VA staff members perceived to be disloyal to President Trump and his agenda for veterans. The report said that none of the staffers were given reasons for their reassignments. O’Rourke also incorrectly claimed authority over the VA Inspector General in a letter to the Inspector General. Although it would be easy to blame O’Rourke for the Department’s toxic climate, he only took office in May 2018; the systemic issues within the VA long precede the acting secretary.

Following the Washington Post report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”)  identified several issues within the Department regarding employee misconduct, retaliation against whistleblowers, and impunity for senior officials. Perhaps the most troubling finding was that senior officials, who perpetuate the agency’s climate, are held to a lower standard than their subordinates. The following figure shows the outcomes of seventeen misconduct cases against senior officials where disciplinary or adverse action was proposed over a 53-month period. Although twelve of the officials faced proposed actions calling for their removal based on the specific charges, only three officials were actually removed from their position. In total, 71% of senior officials who were guilty of misconduct served lesser or no disciplinary action compared to the original proposed action.

Other issues the GAO identified include:

  • Poor record-keeping – the current information system for recording adverse disciplinary actions does not track employee misconduct across the Department, despite the system having the capability to include and incorporate such models.
  • Poor communication within the Department – VA employee files investigated by GAO did not always contain documentation indicating that employees were informed of the reason disciplinary action was brought against them. The lack of oversight in the VA’s human resource policies increases the risk that employees will not be adequately informed of their rights during adjudication.
  • Lack of Transparency – VA facilities and program offices did not always provide the supporting documentation that they used to reach their conclusions about case referrals. This calls into question whether enough evidence was gathered to make sound conclusions about disciplinary or adverse actions.
  • A clear disregard for procedure – the report found that facility and program offices did not consistently follow policies and procedures for investigating allegations against senior officials. Similarly, senior officials may not have always been held accountable for misconduct, whether disciplinary action was not taken or recommended, or previous disciplinary failures were not considered in repeated offenses.

Whistleblowers provide a public service by exposing illegal or unethical activity within an organization. But whistleblowers in the VA allege that managers in their chain of command took actions against them after they reported misconduct. These alleged actions included reassignment to other locations, reduced access to computer equipment necessary to complete assignments, and social isolation from peers. Whistleblowers also were not provided adequate information by VA on how to document or file a claim of misconduct or retaliation.

The GAO report included sixteen recommendations to the VA, of which the VA concurred with nine and partially concurred with five. According to their comments to GAO, the VA plans to, among other things, have the Secretary direct the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (“OAWP”) review and issue guidance on how OAWP will discipline senior officials, and develop a functional process to ensure the implementation of whistleblower protections.

Wilkie is now the face of the VA. It is up to him to make sure that the agency implements the recommendations to protect whistleblowers and hold managers that retaliate against them accountable. Cause of Action Institute will continue to conduct oversight to make sure the VA follows through with adopting GAO’s recommendations. We have documented what happens when agencies provide lip-service instead of fixing problems. Our veterans deserve a functional and ethically-operated VA, and that can only start by repairing the climate of the agency from the top.

Chris Klein is a Research Fellow at Cause of Action Institute