Judge Sends GSA FOIA Staff Back to Work on Trump Hotel Docs

Alex Brandon / AP file photo

In the latest zig-zag in the legal battle over President Trump’s profiting from his lease of his Washington luxury hotel, a federal district judge on Thursday faulted the General Services Administration for inadequately responding to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Judge Beryl Howell, chief of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, ruled in the case brought by the nonprofit transparency group American Oversight that GSA, though it had delivered thousands of emails from the Trump transition team, had not “adequately supported” its decisions to redact some documents and withhold some email attachments in the name of privacy.

“While the FOIA request does not explicitly refer to attachments, the scope of the request for ‘all records reflecting communications’ plainly covered parts of email communications that were in the form of an attachment,” the judge wrote in instructing GSA to turn over more documents. “GSA’s blinkered literalism, distinguishing emails from email attachments, is at odds with the agency’s ‘duty to construe a FOIA request liberally.’ ”

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American Oversight’s original request, filed in April 2017, asked for records relating to the Trump presidential transition team’s contacts with GSA regarding Trump’s controversial continued status as owner of the Trump International Hotel that his company created in the federally owned and historically protected Old Post Office building.

Several legal groups and competing area restauranteurs have filed cases seeking to block Trump’s arrangement on constitutional grounds. GSA in March 2017 issued  a decision saying the unique leasing arrangement with a sitting president did not violate conflict-of-interest rules.

Perceptions that the agency has been stingy in releasing relevant documents have prompted complaints from lawmakers, and an inspector general is still probing the arrangement.

Following negotiations that narrowed the search, GSA had initially identified some 61,000 pages of documents, turning much of them over by September 2017, the ruling noted. But the agency acknowledged that no search was conducted of call logs, meeting agendas, or paper records, arguing that a search for these forms of records “goes far beyond what is required by the FOIA.”

The search terms were also limited to seven, and did not, the judge noted, include one for Ivanka Trump, who was then a key official in the Trump Organization that renovated the hotel.

This week’s decision doesn’t actually produce new documents or evidence of improper contact between Trump transition officials and GSA, which plays a lead role in administering presidential transitions. But the order for GSA to produce more attachments, remove redactions and explain its reasoning over the next few weeks is “an important victory for transparency, the rule of law, and another example of how independent courts remain a critical bulwark against corruption,” in the view of American Oversight.

 “The Trump International Hotel is the centerpiece of the president’s corrupt mixing of business and public service,” said Austin Evers, the group’s executive director. “The public deserves to know the extent to which Trump’s earliest official acts as president-elect focused on protecting his empire from ethics rules. The administration fought to deny the public as much as possible, withholding email attachments, making bogus claims of attorney-client privilege, and somehow forgetting to search for terms like ‘Ivanka.’ That doesn’t fly. We’ll see the truth soon.”

GSA had argued that redactions were necessary to protect the privacy of transition officials, many of whom were not government employees, and argued that it wasn’t obligated to produce email attachments because they weren’t specifically mentioned in the FOIA request.

But the judge ruled that “GSA’s precise reasoning for excluding email attachments from the scope of its search and production, citing the lack of express request for email attachments, has been expressly rejected by this court” in past cases.

And she criticized GSA for taking inconsistent positions on the issue of privacy, noting that transition team “members’ names, plus other identifying information, were made public by the Trump transition team on a publicly accessible website, and … GSA fails to support the premise that service on a presidential transition team is necessarily tantamount to applying for a federal job.”

The judge backed the nonprofit in ordering new documents within 20 days and a joint status report within 45 days as the parties continue negotiating.

But the ruling rejected American Oversight’s request for a summary judgment against GSA.

The agency said it does not comment on pending litigation.

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