Open government groups call on the White House to repudiate DOJ stance on presumption of openness

WASHINGTON, March 16, 2016 – Today, more than 40 organizations and individuals committed to government openness and accountability sent a letter to President Obama expressing deep concern over the efforts by the Justice Department to undermine legislation in the last Congress that would have strengthened the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The letter calls on the President to repudiate the positions taken by the Justice Department and instead publicly and unequivocally endorse the bipartisan FOIA Improvement Act, which was unanimously passed by the Senate yesterday, March 15th.

The letter calls attention to documents obtained in response to a FOIA lawsuit and recently made public by the Freedom of the Press Foundation; specifically, a six-page Justice Department memorandum that contains talking points used by the DOJ to lobby against nearly every aspect of the FOIA reform bill introduced in the House in 2014 (H.R. 1211). Notably, the memo repudiates Attorney General Holder’s guidance on implementing a presumption of openness by rejecting a verbatim codification of his language.  

In spite of the lobbying by the Justice Department, Congress has moved forward this year in both chambers to advance FOIA reforms that include important measures needed to enhance public oversight that is critical to ensuring government accountability.

“The FOIA reforms are critical for achieving the unprecedented levels of openness promised by the President on his first day of office,” according to Patrice McDermott, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment.org. “The President now has the opportunity to stand by his Day One declaration, when he stated that ‘every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known.’”

The letter highlights that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act, and calls on the White House to join the movement for FOIA reform during Sunshine Week, created in celebration of public access to information, in declaring support for the legislation.

 

Additional Resources

Trevor Timm: New documents show the Obama admin aggressively lobbied to kill transparency reform in Congress (Freedom of the Press Foundation)

Justice Department memorandum, released in response to a FOIA lawsuit, Talking points on H.R. 1211 – FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2014

Jason Leopold: It took a FOIA lawsuit to uncover how the Obama administration killed FOIA reform (Vice News)

Trevor Timm: Obama claimed to want transparency. His actions suggest the opposite (The Guardian)

Patrice McDermott: President should support open-government bills