The legal advocacy group Cause of Action has filed suit against a dozen agencies that have resisted its document requests under the Freedom of Information Act, accusing the White House of politicizing the records requests.
The suit filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia names 10 departments plus the Office of Management and Budget and the Internal Revenue Service, charging them with “stonewalling” FOIA requests by “refusing to disclose communications concerning documents the agencies shared with the White House.”
Cause of Action describes itself as a “nonpartisan government accountability organization that fights to protect economic opportunity when federal regulations, spending and cronyism threaten it.” In the past year it has filed 22 FOIA requests and heard back from 10 departments, thereby assembling evidence on how the Office of White House Counsel maintains a list of “equities” it uses to advise agencies on what documents should be released under FOIA to public requesters and Congress.
“Accountable and transparent government does not involve instructing agencies to send politically sensitive records to the White House for review,” Cause of Action Executive Director Dan Epstein said. “The bureaucracy has violated the law by stonewalling the public’s access to documents for political reasons. Cause of Action’s own investigation reveals that the White House is actually demanding access from agencies to Freedom of Information Act requests and congressional document requests, as well as the documents subject to those requests, in a manner that may obstruct congressional oversight and violate the spirit of FOIA.”
The departments named as defendants are Homeland Security, Justice, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, State, Veterans Affairs, Defense, Health and Human Services, Energy and Treasury.
OMB declined to comment on litigation. But Cause of Action posted a 2009 memo from then-White House Counsel Greg Craig reminding agencies that all FOIA requests involving the undefined “White House equities” should come through his office well before the deadline for responding.
Amy Bennett, assistant director of the nonprofit coalition Openthegovernment.org, told Government Executive the suit shows promise.
“All administrations have claimed White House equities, so this is not something that is unique to the Obama White House,” she said. But “courts are really the most effective body that enforces FOIA. Hopefully the Cause of Action lawsuit can help bring some transparency to how the policy plays out in practice, and what effect it has on the public’s ability to understand what the government is doing and why,” she said. “If it turns out that the White House’s policy is improperly stopping the release of records or adding time onto the already lengthy waits that requesters face, we hope Congress will step in.”
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