Shining a Light on Agency FOIA Policies that Contradict the Law

Some agencies have regulations that conflict with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which can lead to confusion for officials and the public, as well as the improper withholding of public information.  For instance, a few agencies still base their definition of a “representative of the news media” on language that is outdated and contradicted by both the FOIA statute and judicial authorities.  The old “organized and operated” standard that certain agencies have left in their regulations can be used to deny preferential fee treatment to nascent or non-traditional news media groups, as well as government watchdog organizations like Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute).  The current statutory definition, by contrast, is meant to broaden the universe of requesters qualifying for the news media fee category.

In Cause of Action v. Federal Trade Commission,  a monumental decision in 2015 that resulted with an appellate court victory for Cause of Action Institute, the U.S Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down the Federal Trade Commission’s outdated and narrow definition of a “representative of the news media” and confirmed the current statutory standard.  The FTC had tried to deny CoA Institute its proper fee categorization and a public interest fee waiver.

In March 2018, CoA Institute submitted a comment to the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a small agency tasked with delivering foreign aid to combat global poverty, on the agency’s proposed rule revising its FOIA regulations.  Among other things, CoA Institute suggested that the MCC correct its definition of a “representative of the news media.” In July of that year, MCC finalized a rule implementing the recommended revisions and taking a step towards effective and transparent oversight.  CoA Institute has had similar success with FOIA reform at other agencies, including the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Office of the Special Counsel, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

This is but one example of the work CoA Institute performs to advance government transparency and protect the rights of the American public, taxpayers and our collective ability to hold our government accountable for its actions.

Matt Frendewey is Director of Communications at Cause of Action Institute.


Cause of Sunshine – Day One of Sunshine Week

Today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, a nationwide celebration of government transparency and accountability.

Since our founding, Cause of Action Institute has been at the forefront of government transparency, using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to shed “sunshine” on the inner workings of our local, state and federal government. As fundamental as our right to vote, an open and transparent government is necessary to ensure the health of our democracy.

The hard work of our investigators and lawyers has resulted in public officials caught violating the law, government policies and procedures, and our litigation and public reports have improved the public’s right to understand and see how their government operates.

This week, we’ll highlight some of Cause of Action’s most important FOIA and open government cases, recommended reforms to the existing law, and highlight some of our ongoing investigations as we demonstrate our commitment to ensuring the economic and individual rights of tax payers remain protected from the administrative state.

Matt Frendewey is Director of Communications at Cause of Action Institute.

Senators call for more transparency, support FOIA “Release to One, Release to All”

During a recent hearing on the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), several senators complained about how federal agencies fail to respond to FOIA requests within the statutorily required time-frame. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley complained that, in some cases, agencies may go more than a decade without producing documents that Americans have a legal right to access. “No one can say with a straight face that FOIA always works as intended,” he said. One step that Sen. Grassley suggested could enhance open government is the finalization of a policy known as Release to One, Release to All. This policy, which Cause of Action Institute supports, would expand access to government records by requiring agencies to post publicly online all records they’ve disclosed in response to FOIA requests. Currently, FOIA documents are only released to the individual or group who filed the request, and agencies are only required to post the records for the public if the record has been requested at least three times.

These records have already been vetted and deemed to be acceptable for public release, so there is little risk of personal or classified information becoming public knowledge though broader release. When documents are only provided to the requester, it is possible that other individuals may submit duplicate requests, which can amplify the problem of backlogs and make it harder for agencies to get information to the public. If these documents were to be released to everyone, however, journalists and watchdog groups could easily access them. Journalists could report on information while watchdog groups and think tanks could access records helpful for their work. A free flow of knowledge would help facilitate ideas to make government more efficient, which is why transparency is an essential aspect for a free and open society. Additionally, there may be unseen and unpredictable benefits that could arise from a massive increase in the amount of government information made public; last year there were more than 800,000 FOIA requests processed.

Cause of Action Institute submitted written testimony for the hearing supporting finalization of the “Release to One, Release to All” policy. CoA Institute President John Vecchione wrote:

Congress has long recognized that frequently requested records should be proactively disclosed by agencies. In the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, Congress directed that once a record has been requested and released three times, the agency must post the record in its electronic reading room. Release to One, Release to All simply takes this idea one step further and would have agencies release information to the public after the first FOIA request and production.

When questioned by Senator Grassley on why “Release to One, Release to All” has stalled under the Trump Administration, Melanie Ann Pustay, the director of the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy, cited compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 508 requires that all federal agencies make public information accessible to people with disabilities, which includes people who are blind. Pustay argued this would require that these documents be accessible through audio, which would require additional time and resources. Senator Grassley was skeptical, stating, “It doesn’t meet the common-sense test.”

Expanded access to government records under “Release to One, Release to All” is an important policy. Rather than forcing every American to jump through hoops and pay substantial FOIA fees to obtain public records and duplicating work for FOIA officers, finalizing this policy would enhance the flow of information and allow Americans to use this information to benefit the public.

Tyler Arnold is a communications associate at Cause of Action Institute.

CoA Institute President John Vecchione Submits Written Testimony to Senate Judiciary Committee for Sunshine Week

Before The United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary

Hearing on The Freedom of Information Act: Examining the Administration’s Progress on Reforms and Looking Ahead

March 13, 2018

Written Testimony of John Vecchione

President & CEO, Cause of Action Institute

Chairman Grassley, Ranking Member Feinstein, and Members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to submit this written testimony about the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), the implementation of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, and other issues related to government transparency.

My name is John Vecchione and I am the president and CEO of Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”).  We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit government oversight organization committed to ensuring that government decision-making is open, honest, and fair.  We use various communication, investigatory, and legal tools to pursue that mission.  We believe deeply that in order for a government to be accountable to the people, it must be transparent.  To that end, we use the FOIA to gather information and educate the public.  But we also police agency behavior under the FOIA, submit regulatory comments on proposed FOIA regulations, and use strategic litigation to bring agencies into compliance with the FOIA and the Federal Records Act.[1]

Today, I would like to address two important topics: the proposed policy of Release to One, Release to All and agencies updating their regulations to reflect statutory changes in the FOIA.

Release to One, Release to All

In July 2016, the country celebrated the 50th anniversary of the FOIA.  Congress marked the occasion by passing the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016.[2]  In conjunction with signing the bill into law, President Obama announced a series of policies to implement the bill and build on the goal of increasing government transparency.[3]  One of those policy initiatives was to learn from the Department of Justice Office of Information Policy’s (“OIP”) Release to One, Release to All pilot program and to work toward all agencies posting their FOIA productions online.

President Obama wrote that this “concept would ensure that all citizens—not just those making a request—have access to information released under FOIA.”[4]

[The President then] direct[ed] the newly established Chief FOIA Officers Council to consider the lessons learned from the DOJ pilot program and work to develop a Federal Government policy establishing a “release to one is a release to all” presumptive standard for Federal agencies when releasing records under FOIA.  The Chief FOIA Officers Council [was directed to] examine issues critical to this policy’s implementation, including assessing the impact on investigative journalism efforts, as well as how best to address technological and resource challenges.[5]

President Obama established a “January 1, 2017 [deadline for] the Chief FOIA Officers Council [to] work with the Office of Management and Budget (‘OMB’) to provide further guidance” on this policy.[6]

On August 10, 2016, in a round of pre-publication comments, CoA Institute submitted comments to OMB and OIP that broadly supported the Release to One, Release to All policy and identified areas where explicit guidance language was necessary to prevent abuse of discretion or agency-avoidance behavior.[7]  We support the policy “because when an agency produces records under FOIA, it has reviewed those records for release to the public and not just the requester.  Proactive disclosure of records may reduce the need for use of FOIA to access information in the first place and thus lessen the burden on FOIA offices throughout the federal government.”[8]  Congress has long recognized that frequently requested records should be proactively disclosed by agencies.  In the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, Congress directed that once a record has been requested and released three times, the agency must post the record in its electronic reading room.[9]  Release to One, Release to All simply takes this idea one step further and would have agencies release information to the public after the first FOIA request and production.

CoA Institute is concerned that too many exceptions to the Release to One, Release to All policy could undermine the policy’s goal.  Namely, in our comments, we highlighted that an exemption for content that is “inappropriate” could be abused “to protect the agency mission, agency head, administration generally, or the president from the political fallout of an embarrassing release.”[10]  CoA Institute has been investigating the role political interference plays in the release of information through FOIA,[11] and we urged OIP not to allow such considerations to taint a Release to One, Release to All policy.  As part of this project, we recently profiled the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s practice of applying so-called “sensitive review” procedures to “high visibility” FOIA requests.[12]

We also commented on several others issues as well, including: agency compliance the readability requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the posting of auxiliary information along with produced documents (such as final determination letters), and recognizing the need for a short delay between releasing information to the requester and making information publicly available in order to safeguard incentives for requesters—particularly news organizations—to make requests in the first place.

In December 2016, OIP issued a request for comment in the Federal Register, seeking input on its draft guidance.[13]  The comment period closed on December 23, 2016.  President Obama’s January 1, 2017 deadline has come and gone; and, more than a year later, neither OMB nor OIP has finalized the guidance or implemented the policy.  OIP also has refused to respond to multiple requests for updates on its process of either finalizing or abandoning the policy.  Frustrated by this lack of action, in October 2017, CoA Institute joined with the Sunlight Foundation and filed a petition for rulemaking with OIP and OMB asking those agencies to finalize the Release to One, Release to All policy.[14]  We have not received a response.

Release to One, Release to All remains an important opportunity for the government to both increase the amount of government information in the public sphere and also potentially ease the burden on FOIA offices.  It is both ironic and unfortunate that the agencies tasked with implementing a transparency policy are being opaque about their plans with regard to the policy.  I urge this Committee to press OIP and OMB to finalize and implement Release to One, Release to All.

Agency FOIA Regulations

The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 required agencies to update their FOIA regulations within 180 days of enactment to reflect the statutory changes.[15]  As often happens, most agencies missed this deadline but, as a whole, agencies have made moderate and steady progress in updating their regulations.

There are approximately 120 agencies subject to the FOIA.[16]  Although most agencies have their own regulations, some share regulations with another agency; and some entities within an agency, such as an office of inspector general, may have FOIA regulations separate from a parent agency.[17]  Therefore, there does not appear to be an exact count of how many FOIA regulations need to be updated with each statutory amendment.  According to FOIA Advisor, a website that tracks FOIA news and regulatory developments, since the passage of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, approximately sixty-three agencies, or about half, have either proposed or finalized updates to their FOIA regulations.

CoA Institute has been paying particular attention to this process because many agencies still maintain an anachronistic definition of a “representative of the news media,” a category of FOIA requester that is able to access records at a reduced cost.  Congress defined the term more than a decade ago in the Open Government Act of 2007.[18]  We were embroiled in litigation over this issue when the Federal Trade Commission used the outdated standard that an entity must be “organized and operated” to publish or broadcast news to deny CoA Institute access to records by claiming we did not qualify for reduced fees and demanding we pay a large sum in order to access records.  Unfortunately, agencies sometimes try to use fees and fee definitions to deny requesters access to records.  In 2015, CoA Institute secured an opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit holding that the “organized and operated” standard has no place in FOIA administration and that agencies must use Congress’s statutory definition.[19]

Following that decision, CoA Institute has been submitting regulatory comments to agencies when they propose or finalize new FOIA regulations in an attempt to bring those agencies’ regulations in line with the 2007 Act and binding jurisprudence.  Over the past few years, we have submitted twenty-four regulatory comments, many focused on agencies’ improper fee definitions.

Relatedly, OMB maintains a three-decades-old guidance document—which the FOIA requires agencies to follow—directing agencies to use the “organized and operated” standard.[20]  CoA Institute is currently in litigation with OMB over a petition for rulemaking we submitted urging OMB to update its guidance and conform to the statute.[21]  When CoA Institute filed that petition, the improper “organized and operated” standard appeared in the Code of Federal Regulations more than seventy times, including in the FOIA regulations of eleven cabinet-level agencies.[22]  While we have been successful in convincing several agencies to conform to the statute,[23] the improper definition of a representative of the news media still appears in dozens of agency FOIA regulations and in OMB’s guidance.

CoA Institute will continue to monitor agency regulatory updates and urge them to bring their regulations into harmony with the FOIA statute.  I urge you to raise this issue with OMB and encourage them to update their guidance document.


I want to thank you again for the opportunity to submit this written statement for the record.  I look forward to continuing to work with you to secure the public’s right to access documents concerning the public’s business.


A PDF file of the testimony is available here.

[1] See, e.g., Judicial Watch, Inc. v. Kerry, 844 F.3d 952 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (securing decision as co-plaintiff that agency Federal Records Act obligations are not moot so long as agency can still recover records that have been unlawfully removed from the government); Cause of Action v. Fed. Trade Comm’n, 799 F.3d 1108 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (securing decision on proper definition of a “representative of the news media” under FOIA’s fee provisions).

[2] FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, Pub. L. No. 114-185, 130 Stat. 538 (2016).

[3] Press Release, The White House, Fact Sheet: New Steps Toward Ensuring Openness and Transparency in Government (June 30, 2016), available at

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Letter from James Valvo, Cause of Action Inst., to Hon. Shaun L. S. Donovan, Dir., Office of Mgmt. & Budget, White House, & Melanie Ann Pustay, Dir., Office of Info. Policy, Dep’t of Justice (Aug. 10, 2016) [hereinafter CoA Institute Release to One, Release to All Comment], available at

[8] Id. at 2.

[9] FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 § 2(a); 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(2)(D)(ii)(II).

[10] CoA Institute Release to One, Release to All Comment at 2.

[11] See Cause of Action Inst., Grading the Government: How the White House Targets Document Requesters (Mar. 18, 2014), available at; Cause of Action Inst., White House FOIA Obstruction, (last visited Mar. 12, 2018).

[12] Ryan Mulvey, NOAA Records Demonstrate Expansion of Sensitive Review FOIA Procedures, Cause of Action Inst. (Mar. 12, 2018),

[13] Dep’t of Justice, Request for Public Comment on Draft “Release to One, Release to All” Presumption, 81 Fed. Reg. 89023 (Dec. 9, 2016); see Draft Mem. for the Heads of Departments & Agencies, “Release to One, Release to All” Presumption:  Achieving Greater Transparency by Making More Information Available Online, from Office of Info. Policy, Dep’t of Justice (undated).

[14] See Letter from Alex Howard, Deputy Dir., Sunlight Found. & James Valvo, CoA Inst., to Hon. Mick Mulvaney, Dir., Office of Mgmt. & Budget, White House, & Melanie Ann Pustay, Dir., Office of Info. Policy, Dep’t of Justice (Oct. 31, 2017), available at

[15] FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 § 3(a).

[16] See, Where to Make a FOIA Request, Full List of Agencies, (last visited Mar. 12, 2018) (listing agency FOIA contacts).

[17] See, e.g., 7 C.F.R. pt. 2620 (Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General maintaining separate FOIA regulations).

[18] See Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act of 2007 § 3, Pub. L. No. 110-175, 121 Stat. 2524, 2525 (2007).

[19] See Cause of Action, 799 F.3d at 1119.

[20] See Office of Mgmt. & Budget, Uniform Freedom of Information Act Fee Schedule and Guidelines, 52 Fed. Reg. 10012 (Mar. 27, 1987); 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(A)(i) (Agency fee schedules “shall conform to the guidelines which shall be promulgated . . . by the Director of [OMB] and which shall provide for a uniform schedule of fees for all agencies.”).

[21] See Cause of Action Inst. v. White House Office of Mgmt. & Budget, No. 17-2310 (D.D.C. filed Nov. 2, 2017).

[22] See Letter from James Valvo, CoA Inst. to, Hon. Shaun L.S. Donovan, Dir., Office of Mgmt. & Budget, at 4 (June 2, 2016) (listing agencies), available at

[23] See Ryan Mulvey, CoA Institute Criticizes the Presido Trust on Flawed FOIA Rule, Cause of Action Inst., Mar. 6, 2018, (detailing successful regulatory comments to “among others, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Office of the Special Counsel, Department of Defense, U.S. Agency for International Development, and Department of Homeland Security”).

The Proof is in the Metadata: Recent Developments in CEI v. OSTP

Last summer, in Competitive Enterprise Institute v. Office of Science & Technology Policy, 827 F.3d 145 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (“CEI v. OSTP”), the D.C. Circuit reached an important decision concerning an agency’s obligation to search private email accounts maintained by government officials for records responsive to a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request. The court determined that if an official “possesses what would otherwise be agency records [e.g., work-related email], the records do not lose their agency character just because the official . . . takes them out the door [e.g., to a private account][.]” Id. at 149. Thus, if a personal email account may contain agency records, the agency cannot categorically refuse to conduct a search of that private account.

This past week, however, the district court on remand appeared to dampen the impact of the D.C. Circuit’s ruling. Judge Gladys Kessler determined that OSTP had met its burden under the FOIA and did not have to conduct a search of former Director John Holdren’s personal email account, the contents of which had been saved on a thumb drive last December under court order. OSTP successfully argued that any agency records on Holdren’s non-governmental account would be duplicative of records already on OSTP servers. The agency pointed to a policy that required Holdren to forward work-related email to his official account or to copy that account on work-related correspondence. OSTP also attested that Holdren obeyed this policy on “approximately 4,500 occasions” and was otherwise entitled to a presumption of compliance “absent evidence to the contrary.” CEI could not rebut the presumption.

The district court’s decision, particularly on the heels of Sunshine Week, is disappointing. First, although a requester admittedly cannot rely on speculation to prove wrongdoing, once a requester has proven that a non-governmental system contains agency records, the agency should not be allowed to forego a search of that system simply because it claims to possess “duplicative” records elsewhere. It is difficult enough to demonstrate that an agency official is violating the spirit, if not the law, of transparent government by using personal email for work-related purposes. The existence and usage of a parallel personal account should be enough, in most cases, to rebut any presumption of compliance with preservation rules. Of course, OSTP may have given sufficient evidence of Holdren’s compliance in this case—an affidavit indicated that he forwarded or copied his official email account approximately 4,500 times—but courts should remain skeptical that all agency records have been forwarded when atypical means of conducting government business are at issue. One need only consider the ongoing saga of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email accounts, where additional State Department records were uncovered even after she had averred that all such records had been turned over, to understand why this should be the case.

Second, assuming OSTP had copies of all agency records from Holdren’s personal account, it is not clear that these copies would actually be “duplicative.” For example, CEI argued that it sought Holdren’s email in “electronic format” along with any “metadata.” On this theory, copied or forwarded email records on OSTP’s servers may not, in fact, be “duplicative” because they may not include all original metadata. Judge Kessler found this line of argument unpersuasive and held that the metadata in Holdren’s personal email would “not in itself make each email unique as compared to the forwarded reproduction[.]” This conclusion is wrong and sets a dangerous precedent.

Metadata includes various types of information about an electronic document that are not usually visible, but reflect important characteristics concerning the document’s origin, alteration, or usage. It includes “substantive metadata,” such as tracked changes in Microsoft Word; “system metadata,” which is created by a computer system, such as the information contained in a file’s properties; and “embedded metadata,” such as hyperlink details or Excel formulae. See Aguilar v. Immigration & Customs Enf’t, 255 F.R.D. 350, 354–55 (S.D.N.Y. 2008) (discussing different types of metadata).

Numerous state courts have ruled that metadata forms an integral part of an electronic record and is subject to disclosure under state-based Freedom of Information regimes. No federal court has settled the question for the FOIA, but it seems appropriate to adopt a similar default presumption that metadata must be disclosed so long as it forms an integral part of an electronic record and is readily reproducible. A requester should not even need to specifically request integral metadata.

There may not be a one-size-fits-all approach to distinguishing different types of metadata and which form an integral part of a record. The best approach would take into account an agency’s storage practices and the type of electronic records at issue—Does the agency store email in a hard-copy format or electronically? Are electronic copies kept in native or near-native format? What sort of metadata is preserved in those formats? It would also consider an agency’s ability to readily reproduce metadata—Are email records readily releasable as PDF or MSG files? Finally, it would look to whether a requester has specified that he wants an agency to produce (rather than merely search for) records in a form that includes metadata. See, e.g., Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington v. Department of Education, 905 F. Supp. 2d 161, 171–72 (D.D.C. 2012) (“CREW did not request that DoEd produce its records in electronic format . . . DoEd thus had no obligation to produce the documents in any particular format.”) (internal citation omitted).

This proposed approach under the FOIA is supported by the treatment of metadata in other legal contexts. Under implementing regulations for the Federal Records Act, for example, “electronic record” is defined as “both record content and associated metadata that the agency determines is required to meet agency business needs.” 36 C.F.R. § 1220.18. “Metadata,” in turn, “consists of preserved contextual information describing the history, tracking, and/or management of an electronic document.” Id. When it comes to email records, some metadata can form an integral part of the electronic record. See id. § 1236.22(a). In the civil discovery context, when metadata exists as part of a document’s native format, it should be produced to an opponent. If a party seeks discovery of additional metadata, a court will typically grant it so long as the metadata is reasonably accessible and potentially relevant to the dispute at hand.

From the outset of its case, CEI argued that it sought agency records that were stored on Holdren’s personal email account in an electronic format. Metadata integral to those records (viz., sender, recipient, and “BCC” recipient information, etc.) might not have carried over in toto to the copies on OSTP’s servers. Such information could be instructive, as any litigator or investigative journalist would attest, and might even explain why Holdren was using a personal email account for official government business in the first place. The district court considered OSTP’s “duplicative” email records “functionally equivalent” to the originals on Holdren’s private account. That much is true when considering the visible content of the email. But that’s only half of the story. Metadata lurks beneath, and without the original integral metadata, any copies of Holdren’s email on OSTP’s servers are incomplete and not duplicative.

Ryan Mulvey is counsel at Cause of Action Institute.