Agency IGs Find No FOIA Interference from Political Appointees

Amtrak
Denali Commission

Department of Commerce
Department of Defense
Department of Energy
Department of Transportation

Environmental Protection Agency
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission 
Export-Import Bank

Federal Housing Finance Agency
Goverment Publishing Office

Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Social Security Administration

In June, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs requested that each agency’s Inspector General review the role of non-career employees – political appointees – in the FOIA response process. The IG’s were asked to review the period of January 1, 2007 to the present, and to provide a certification from the Chief FOIA Officer that either 1) no non-career employees were involved in the FOIA process, or 2) their involvement did not cause undue delays or additional withholding of information.  

Below are summaries of the agency review results that have been released so far. OpenTheGovernment.org will continue to monitor agencies’ progress and post summaries here as the results become available.

Agency Reviews

Amtrak

Amtrak’s Chief FOIA Officer certified that no political appointees are involved in the review or response process for any FOIA request the company receives. The only non-career employees at Amtrak are the Board of Directors, and any FOIA cases requesting information related to the Board are referred to the Corporate Secretary.

Denali Commission

The Denali Commission has only one non-career employee, its Federal Co-Chair, and the Inspector General did not find that the Co-Chair had impeded the FOIA process in any way. 

Department of Commerce

The Department’s Inspector General reviewed specific cases where non-career employees could have delayed or altered FOIA releases, and found no significant interference. His review showed that political appointees have a limited role in the FOIA process, and that they do not cause additional withholding of information. Although there have been a few case delays involving non-career personnel, those delays were not found to be unnecessary.

Department of Energy

The DoE IG found no undue delays or withholding of information from non-career employees, but this is the only agency for which the Chief FOIA Officer would not provide a certification, because it was not required by law. In addition, the IG found that four of the 55 FOIA responses it examined were sent to the White House for review, in compliance with a 2009 Executive Branch memo, because they contained documents related to White House entities. In two of these four cases, changes were made to the redactions in the FOIA responses, but it's impossible to know why because the DoE did not keep records of its correspondence with the White House.  

Department of Transportation

The DOT IG reported on a review he had conducted on the agency’s FOIA process between 2008 and 2010 (he stated that since the agency’s official FOIA process has not been changed significantly since 2008, there is no need for another review). At that time, the agency had found that political appointees were not impeding the FOIA process. Most DOT FOIA officers said that political appointees rarely or never review FOIA responses prior to their release. 10 of 11 FOIA officers interviewed said they could not remember a time when a political appointee had delayed the FOIA response process. The 2010 report also stated that most political appointees who receive FOIA response information prior to release do so for informational purposes only, and that the agency hotline had received no complaints regarding political interference in the process.

Environmental Protection Agency

The Chief FOIA Officer at the EPA is a political appointee, and several other political appointees have FOIA responsibilities. However, the EPA-IG found no evidence of bias in EPA FOIA decisions, and career staff attested that political appointee involvement does not result in inappropriate delays or withholdings. The Chief FOIA Officer stated that the request for certification was not possible, given that non-career employees have responsibilities in the FOIA process just like career employees.  Still, the report found no undue interference from political appointees.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

The EEOC Inspector General found, and the Chief FOIA Officer certified, that no non-career officials were involved in the agency's FOIA process.

Export-Import Bank

The Ex-Im Bank IG found that non-career officials were involved in the FOIA process only to be informed of responses, or if they were responsible for records being requested. The Chief FOIA Officer is, himself, a political appointee, but the Inspector General did not find that he caused undue delays or withholdings. In his certification, the Chief FOIA Officer did mention that the FOIA office had occasionally chosen to first address the request of a member of Congress if that response contained records similar to a request from the public. However, he certified that non-career officials did not impede the FOIA response process. 

Federal Housing Finance Agency

The FHFA-OIG launched a review of the agency’s FOIA process from 2009 (when it launched its FOIA office) to the present, and found no evidence of political appointee interference in the FOIA process. FHFA’s FOIA office is staffed entirely by career employees, and interviewed employees stated that non-career officials do not try to influence the FOIA process.

Government Publishing Office

The GPO is not subject to FOIA requests, as it is an agency of Congress rather than the Executive Branch. It does have a policy for releasing documents to the public, and this policy does not involve any non-career officials. 

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

The OIG found in its review of the NRC that although there is political appointee involvement in the FOIA process, the involvement “falls within published procedures.” The agency’s Commission consists of five non-career employees, who must engage in FOIA requests for Commission-generated documents and requests for program offices that involve Commission-related records.

Individual commissioners do make determinations on their own personal documents, but the report stressed that these cases are rare, and that most cases are decided by a vote from the entire Commission. The OIG found no undue delay, given that the Commission members tend to agree on FOIA decisions, thereby avoiding delay. The review also found that when Commissioners analyze the requests processed by program offices, they most frequently make recommendations in favor of disclosing more information, not less. The Chief FOIA Officer certified that the Commissioners do not cause undue delay in the FOIA process.

Social Security Administration

The SSA OIG focused its report on FOIA response from 2011 through June 2015, because it had already conducted a review on the process in 2010. The CFO certified that no non-career employees were involved in the FOIA process. Although some political appointees were informed of FOIA requests, they did not cause undue delay nor withhold additional information. 

Announcements

Department of Defense

The Assistant Inspector General for Audit Policy and Oversight, on behalf of the Senate Committee of Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, requested on July 25, 2015 a POC for the Joint Chiefs, each Military Department, Defense Agency, Field Activity, and Combatant Command within 10 days in order to begin the review process. 

Categories: Uncategorized