In a dangerous power grab that will jeopardize government transparency, the Obama Justice Department wants to redefine federal public record law so that it becomes the sole arbiter in disputes between agencies and individuals who submit requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The unprecedented move would give the Department of Justice (DOJ), an extension of the executive branch, scary authority to determine if and how public records are disseminated throughout government. It would also strip those duties from the agency— Office of Government Information Services (OGIS)—that was created by Congress as a neutral party to mediate FOIA disputes and assure compliance among all federal agencies.
This is not the sort of story you’ll see in the mainstream media since, not surprisingly, the Obama Administration is keeping it under the radar. However, Judicial Watch has obtained an inside congressional document outlining the DOJ’s unscrupulous plot to become FOIA ombudsman. It comes from one of the most influential and powerful chambers in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
In a letter addressed to Attorney General Eric Holder, the California congressman who chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee (Darrell Issa) says the proposed modification will have a negative impact on government transparency. The letter also requests documents involving efforts to modify OGIS’s statutorily established FOIA dispute resolution authority by shifting the duties to the DOJ. Holder has until this week to comply with the committee’s request.
The House investigative committee also reminds Holder that the DOJ’s proposal to become the referee for public records disputes clearly contradicts Congress’s intent and is an apparent contravention of FOIA law. “DOJ has important but limited statutory responsibilities concerning the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA),” the letter says. “These responsibilities include making information about agency FOIA programs publicly available; issuing recommendations and guidelines to agency FOIA offices, and encouraging agency FOIA compliance. DOJ’s responsibilities under FOIA, however, do not include offering dispute resolution services between agencies and FOIA requesters.”
Congress created the OGIS more than four years ago as a crucial neutral party that offers a range of mediation services to resolve public records disputes and to assure government-wide compliance. The agency, which is headquartered at the U.S. National Archives, has had tremendous success, directly helping resolve more than 1,200 FOIA disputes from virtually every state. No wonder Issa asks Holder to “reconsider the proposed modification and comply with current law.”