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Congress requests GAO investigation into federal FOIA shortcomings

Friday, April 29, 2016 13:49
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(Before It's News)

By The Sunlight Foundation

A document with all of the text except the word
A redacted FOIA document. (Photo credit: opensourceway/Flickr)

On April 28, the leaders of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary sent Gene L. Dodaro, the U.S. comptroller general, a letter requesting the General Accountability Office (GAO) conduct a comprehensive review of the federal government’s compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a vital tool that protects one of the cornerstones of our Nation: the American public’s right to know what its government is up to. Given FOIA’s importance, effective and complete implementation of its statutory requirements is necessary to ensure that the public can exercise its right to know.

Requesters repeatedly report to Congress the problems they have encountered with the FOIA process. These problems include indefinite delays, excessive redactions, and other unnecessary barriers to accessing information. According to a recent report, people who sought records under FOIA in Fiscal Year 2015 received censored files or simply nothing at all in response to 77 percent of all requests—a record high, according to the Associated Press. During the same period, the number of FOIA lawsuits filed in federal court reached an all-time high. These are troubling statistics that warrant further investigation into how, and the extent to which, the federal government responds to FOIA requests.

The authors of the letter — Reps. Jason Chaffetz, Elijah Cummings and Darrell Issa along with Sens. Charles Grassley, Patrick Leahy and John Cornyn — requested that the GAO produce reports on the following topics:

  • “audits of agencies on compliance with and implementation of the requirements of 5 U.S.C. §552
  • a catalog of the number of exemptions described under 5 U.S.C. §552(b)(3) and the use of such exemptions by each agency
  • the processing of requests by agencies for information pertaining to an entity that has received assistance under title I of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (12 U.S.C. 5211 et seq.) during any period in which the Government owns or owned more than 50 percent of the stock of such an entity
  • the feasibility of implementing a policy requiring non-custodians to search for records responsive to FOIA requests and requests from Congress
  • methods agencies use to reduce backlogged FOIA requests and the effectiveness of those methods
  • a catalog of the number of times in the past sixteen years that, in accordance with 5 U.S.C. 552(a)(4)(F)
    • a court issued a written finding that the circumstances surrounding a withholding raised questions whether agency personnel acted arbitrarily or capriciously with respect to the withholding
    • the Special Counsel initiated a proceeding to determine whether disciplinary action was warranted against the officer or employee who was primarily responsible for the withholding; and
    • the administrative authority, to which the findings and recommendations of the Special Counsel were referred, took corrective action as recommend by the Special Counsel, and the results of such corrective action; and
  • the adequacy of current law to enforce – and deter violations of – the requirements of 5 U.S.C. §552, including the measures provided by 5 U.S.C. 552(a)(4)(F), and whether stronger enforcement tools are necessary to encourage and ensure compliance with 5 U.S.C. §552.

We strongly encourage the GAO to produce the reports requested by Congress and publish them on the Internet in full for public consumption.

Many thanks to Lauren Harper of the National Security Archive for bringing the letter to broader public attention, along with other matters related to the Freedom of Information Act.

The Sunlight Foundation is a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that uses the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency, and provides new tools and resources for media and citizens, alike.


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