Obama administration pledged transparency, but slowed document requests, memos show

Obama administration pledged transparency, but slowed document requests, memos show

By Judson Berger    Published June 20, 2013

Even as the freshly minted Obama administration was pledging a “new era of open government” in 2009, officials were quietly adding new rules that had the potential to slow down public requests for documents.

Those rules, detailed in memos reviewed by, could even trip up present-day efforts to dig into the IRS’ practice of targeting conservative groups. The rules detailed in the memos largely emanated from the Treasury Department and, specifically, the IRS.

“It would seem to repudiate this notion that this is going to be the most transparent government in history,” said Dan Epstein, executive director of Cause of Action, the group that first obtained the memos.

The memos follow reports about the administration’s use of private email accounts, and coincide with ongoing debate about government transparency — particularly with recent disclosures about widespread surveillance programs.

Epstein said the document request procedures are “troubling” since the media are “really concerned about the limits of government power.”

According to the documents, the Treasury Department in 2009 set up an additional review for requests involving “sensitive information,” which covered a broad range of items. The White House sometimes got involved, slowing down the process. The IRS also acknowledged having another review process for requests from “major media,” but not for requests from private individuals.

Members of the media often try to obtain documents not readily available by citing a law known as the Freedom of Information Act. The Treasury Department, though, in late 2009 erected speed bumps for some so-called FOIA requests.

The rules were detailed in a November 2010 memo and report sent from the Treasury inspector general to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.

The documents showed the Treasury Department set up an additional “formal level of review” for requests for “sensitive information.” This category would cover everything from emails to memos to calendars to travel logs for top department officials, legal advisers, senior advisers and others.

Once a request was deemed “sensitive,” it would then go before a “review committee,” made up of officials from several Treasury offices.

Further, the document said a special report would be prepared for IRS requests from “major media.” This covers requests from traditional news media as well as bloggers, and according to the report covered information that “was likely to attract news media or congressional interest, involved large dollar amounts, or involved unique or novel issues.”

This report would then be sent to a higher-up in the division who decided whether the material should be disclosed.

The report repeatedly said that, in most cases, political appointees were not involved in these decisions, and that the agencies have no procedures to allow that.

But Epstein said these rules could cause problems as Congress and the media dig deeper into the origin of the IRS practice of singling out conservative groups for additional scrutiny.

He pointed to another memo, dated April 15, 2009, from then-White House Counsel Greg Craig that urged “executive agencies” to consult with his office “on all document requests that may involve documents with White House equities.” Craig said this pertains to everything from FOIA requests to congressional requests to subpoenas.

This practice apparently dates back to 1993. The Treasury IG memo cited this, and described the White House involvement as “minimal and limited.” However, the report also said the White House involvement “was responsible in several cases for adding a significant processing delay,” which in Treasury’s case slowed them down.

“It actually is heavily ironic in the realm of transparency,” Epstein said.

He pointed to edicts and memos early on in the first term of the administration stressing transparency. Obama issued a January 2009 directive calling for an “unprecedented level of openness.”

Attorney General Eric Holder in March 2009 directed all Executive Branch departments to use a “presumption of openness” when dealing with FOIA requests.

To that end, the administration has instituted several other transparency initiatives. It has followed through on requiring Cabinet secretaries to hold Internet town hall discussions, set up a comprehensive website to track stimulus spending, and set up a national declassification center.


Washington Post: Watchdog groups check administration’s transparency

Sunshine Week: Watchdog groups check administration’s transparency

By Josh Hicks

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Morning News for Thursday, March 07, 2013

Washington Examiner – “Officials who claim automatic sequestration spending reductions will slash the federal budget to the bone could have instead heeded suggestions last year from government watchdogs that would have saved more than $67 billion, according to a congressional report released today.”

Washington Times – “In Beltway terms, the Federal Communications Commission’s $350 million budget request for 2013 is practically a rounding error. Yet it costs the American people a lot more than that. In fact, it is the third-most-expensive federal agency, but thanks to a lack of transparency, very few people are aware of that fact.”

Weekly Standard – “With the White House closing its doors to public tour groups in order to save money for the sequester, it’s worth remembering some of the other costs the White House incurs annually. Like the “Chief Calligrapher,” Patricia A. Blair, who has an annual salary of $96,725, and her two deputies, Debra S. Brown, who gets paid $85,953 per year, and Richard T. Muffler, who gets paid $94,372 every year.”

Morning News for Thursday, February 21, 2013

From The Daily Caller: Another EPA administrator caught using a private email account.  

Emails released by the Environmental Protection Agency show that acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe used a private email account to conduct official business, which violates EPA policy and has raised questions about whether he was trying to shield communications from public disclosure.

The Oversight Committee is investigating whether contracts worth $500 million came from a personal relationship between an IRS employee and the owner of a computer company. The Washington Guardian reports:

“At best, this is a conflict of interest that runs afoul of … Federal Acquisition Regulation,” Issa writes. “At worst, the IRS may have a situation in which a contracting official is awarding sole source contracts based on false justifications, or receiving kickbacks in exchange for government contracts.”

The Supreme Court is considering an issue of how FOIA rights are treated by states. Read more from Politico

Freedom of Information laws were before the Supreme Court Wednesday, but the issue wasn’t the usual one of what is and isn’t off limits. Instead, the justices were trying to sort out whether states have the right to limit the use of such laws to their own citizens and companies.

Morning News for Friday, February 15, 2013

The GAO released its biennial report of the agencies at the highest risk for waste, fraud and abuse. The Washington Guardian has the latest:

Congress’ main investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, has released its latest list of government programs at high-risk of waste, fraud and abuse, continuing a tradition of providing lawmakers with the report every two years at the start of a new Congress. And most on this year’s list are long-time, repeat offenders.

DOE Loan Recipient Tesla Motors attempts to defend its name after the NY Times piece doubted the car’s capabilities. Daily Caller has this coverage:

The New York Times is under attack from electronic-car maker Tesla, whose chairman and CEO on Wednesday posted a full-page, data-filled refutation of claims made by Times reporter John Broder that its Model S failed spectacularly during a test drive. The CEO, Elon Musk, flatly accuses the reporter of both lying in his story and repeatedly attempting to sabotage the car. “We assumed that the reporter would be fair and impartial, as has been our experience with The New York Times, an organization that prides itself on journalistic integrity,” wrote Musk, in a post on Tesla’s website called “A Most Peculiar Test Drive.”

President Obama continues to claim that his administration is leading the charge in terms of transparency despite mounting evidence to the contrary. The Washington Free Beacon has this story:

President Obama once again claimed his administration is the “most transparent in history” Thursday, despite lengthy record of failed reform and increased secrecy. Obama was answering questions during a Google hangout when a woman questioned him on his promises of greater government transparency, noting things “feels a lot less transparent.  “This is the most transparent administration in history,” Obama assured the woman. “I can document that this is the case.”

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Friday, February 1, 2013 Morning News

Coverage of our FEC Complaint against the Democratic National Committee continues to grow. Roll Call brings us this story of the allegations:

The government watchdog group Cause of Action has alleged in a complaint to the Federal Election Commission that the Democratic National Committee misreported payments to the Health and Human Services Department following a 2012 trip by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that violated the Hatch Act. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel concluded in September that Sebelius had violated the 1939 Hatch Act, which restricts political activities by government employees, when she called for President Barack Obama’s re-election at a February 2012 rally in Charlotte, N.C..

There has been more fallout from the recent Federal Court ruling stating Obama appointments to the NLRB were illegal. More from Reuters:

A California-based hospital company says it will not comply with at least two National Labor Relations Board rulings from the past year after a federal court invalidated three of President Barack Obama’s recess appointments to the NLRB last week.

The CFPB may not be immune to the NLRB fallout either. The Huffington Post has this story:

Republican senators are moving to target the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as well as the National Labor Relations Board in the wake of a court ruling that found President Barack Obama’s appointments to the NLRB were unconstitutional. A bill offered Thursday by Sens. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) would withhold any funding for actions taken by the leaders whom Obama named to their posts more than a year ago.

The Oversight Committee is going after USAID for potential wrongdoing.