Congressman fights Geithner on transparency, introduces new FOIA-reform bill

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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Ohio Republican Rep. Michael Turner is planning to introduce new legislation on Wednesday to reform the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by removing exemptions in the law that have allowed the Obama administration to withhold documents and information related to the auto and financial bailouts.

As currently written, FOIA law leaves a number of loopholes allowing the Obama administration to deny taxpayers access to information related to how their money was used during the bailouts. Turner’s bill would close the loopholes, effectively forcing the administration to release documents it has been withholding from the public about what happened during the bailouts.

Turner has led a charge in Congress to get to the bottom of what happened to the pensions of approximately 20,000 non-union private sector workers from Delphi, a General Motors company. During the bailout, the Department of Treasury eliminated those workers’ pensions while topping off the pensions of union workers. Turner has alleged the decisions were politically motivated for several reasons, including the fact that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner filled multiple roles in the process: Geithner played the part of Treasury secretary, co-chair of President Barack Obama’s Auto Task Force and board member of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) — an independent U.S. government agency created to monitor pension payments and ensure payouts promised by failed companies.

Turner told The Daily Caller that the PBGC and the Treasury Department have cited “FOIA Exemption 5 – ‘the deliberative process’ privilege” in denying the American people access to information about the bailout.

“This exempts intra-agency memoranda containing pre-decisional recommendations on agency policy,” Turner told TheDC. “Remember, both Treasury and the PBGC have said that Treasury played ‘no role’ in the PBGC decision-making. Yet, Treasury has moved to quash subpoenas for communications between the two government entities based on this ground.”

“The question arises then: How can Treasury communications with the PBGC have ‘compris[ed] part of the process by which agency policies and decisions are created, given the repeated assertions that Treasury played no role in the decision-making process?,” Turner stated. “Similarly, Treasury has refused to produce documents related to GM investments in Delphi. Yet, Treasury has always said that these were GM decisions, so no ‘agency’ decision could be implicated.”

Turner told TheDC his bill “would update the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to provide taxpayers with access to information and records relevant to any federal government bailout.”

“For example, under the RESTORE FOIA Act, agencies administering and carrying out the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) would be denied from invoking the FOIA exemptions,” Turner said. “This is the very access that groups of Americans such as the Delphi Salaried Retirees have been denied.”

During a Wednesday House Oversight Committee hearing on Europe’s ongoing debt crisis, Turner questioned Geithner on his continued reluctance to release full documents related to the Delphi workers, too. Geithner defended himself and said that the administration has been transparent, though it’s still withholding key information about the process by which the Obama administration decided to eliminate the non-union Delphi workers’ lifelong pensions.

“We, of course, have cooperated very closely with this committee and every other congressional committee in making sure we are as responsive as possible for all your requests for information, and we’ll continue to do that,” Geithner said.

In response, Turner shot back. “Mr. Secretary, does that mean you’ll be willing to release unredacted versions of the documents? I mean, you say, well, you’ve tried,” he said. “If you send us documents that are redacted, or in litigation that’s pending send redacted documents, you’re not being forthcoming. That’s not the, ‘Here’s what your government did.’”

“Of course, I disagree with you on that,” Geithner answered. “But, we’ll try to be as forthcoming as we can.”

Geithner also said he thinks the Obama administration has “provided an incredible level of transparency over every decision we made with the taxpayers’ money in that context.”

Turner told TheDC that Geithner’s continued claims of transparency aren’t holding up when it comes to what his department is actually doing. “One would think that respect for the American taxpayer and the president’s so-called ‘presumption in favor of disclosure’ would drive the administration to release this information,” Turner said. “The bill would simply level the playing field for taxpayers seeking this information by restoring the intent of the law and removing the barriers that Secretary Geithner continues to hide behind in efforts to keep his decisions secret from the American public.”

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