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Former Organizing for America staffer interfered with FOIA requests at Department of Homeland Security

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Mike Riggs
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      Mike Riggs

      Mike Riggs is a staff writer at The Daily Caller. He has written and reported for Reason magazine and reason.com, GQ, the Awl, Decibel, Culture 11, the Philadelphia Bulletin, and the Washington City Paper, where he served as an arts and entertainment editor.

New emails and testimony from Department of Homeland Security FOIA officer Catherine Papoi reveal that a former Obama campaign staffer repeatedly asked Papoi and her team to redact portions of “politically sensitive” documents, as well as portions of documents that were already publicly available.

Papoi, who came under fire at DHS for complaining that “sensitive” FOIA requests were being vetted by political employees, testified on March 3 that Willard “Clint” Carte, a DHS attorney with the title of “confidential assistant,” attempted to block a FOIA request for DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano’s calendar in which Napolitano’s secretary had referred to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as “Senator Clinton.” According to Papoi’s testimony, Carte asked that Clinton’s title be changed on the calendar in order to spare the department “embarrassment.”

“The front office wanted that changed before the response went out the door and we were pushing back saying that once you cast your net and retrieve a record, you can’t alter a record because of mere embarrassment,” Papoi said in her testimony.

According to Papoi, FOIA officers are told they can only “cast their net” one time. “Once you have retrieved the records, they lose…the living nature where they are evolving, and the statute requires that you retrieve the records and then process them,” she testified. “DOJ has also opined that you don’t cast your net twice, you cast once. You retrieve the records and you process them. So [the front office, where Carte worked] also suggested making the changes and then recasting our net, and it was explained that also was unacceptable.”

When asked why she refused, Papoi said, “Ultimately that is my job, and I have to be able to sleep at night knowing that I am doing the right thing.”

In a statement to Politico, a DHS spokesperson denied charges of meddling, saying, “In no case did this process inhibit documents from release under FOIA and only attorneys and other FOIA professionals determined the substance of redactions.”

But Carte, a graduate of West Virginia University Law School, isn’t just an attorney. According to a campaign database maintained by George Washington University, Carte served as the new media director for Obama For America, Obama’s general election campaign group in West Virginia. Carte also appears as an administrator of several groups hosted on Organizing for America’s website, including “West Virginians for Obama,” “Marshall University Students for Barack Obama,” “In Support of Change,” and others.

Papoi’s testimony and emails revealed a second conflict with Carte.

According to emails obtained by The Daily Caller, Carte wanted to redact information from a FOIA request filed by the conservative group Judicial Watch. “Here are the proposed redactions to this response…the additional redactions are all under b5,” Carte wrote. “Obviously the response letter would need a change to include a b5 portion, and the b5 would have to go over/with the b2 and b6 redactions. Am happy to discuss.”

The b5 exemption is the most commonly abused exemption, and the Supreme Court ruled against its use in a Washington State case earlier this month. The exemption is intended to cover “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency,” but is often used in broad swaths to redact information that cannot be redacted under any other exemption.

Carte planned to use b5 to redact a section concerning visa waivers, to which Papoi responded that “DHS has already made public the fact that several countries are participating in the visa waiver program.” (Carte also suggested several other redactions, but TheDC did not have access to those specific suggestions.)

In an email to Carte dated May 27, Papois wrote that Carte’s proposed redactions were consistent “with the way the former administration would have redacted this document. Not a good thing in my opinion…”

When asked by the Oversight Committee investigators why Carte wanted to redact portions of the Judicial Watch request that were already publicly available, and thus not suited to redaction under b5, Papoi said, “This was an instance where either they weren’t aware it was made public or they simply did not want to release the information. Which one, I am not sure.”

Papoi claims that she was demoted within DHS for raising concerns about the FOIA process.