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Report Details Obama Admin’s ‘Disappointing’ Transparency Record

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Michael Bastasch Contributor
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President Barack Obama said he would run the most transparent administration in history. A pledge he has not lived up to according to a new report grading federal agencies on how well they handle Freedom of Information Act requests.

The Center for Effective Government looked at the FOIA processes for 15 federal agencies that handle 90 percent of the government’s records requests. The results were pretty abysmal, according to CEG.

“The results are once again disappointing,” CEG reported. “No agency achieved an exemplary total score (an overall A grade); only two agencies received Bs; three received C grades; eight received Ds; and two failed.”

The report, however, did indicate that overall agencies are moving in the right direction in terms of FOIA responses. Eight of 15 agencies improved their overall score this year while the other seven either did worse or the same as CEG’s 2014 report. Even so, the group says there’s still a lot agencies can improve on.

“The Freedom of Information Act represents the foundational transparency law for the federal government,” Katherine McFate, president of the Center for Effective Government, said in a statement. “Our report shows agencies are still struggling with the task.”

Who’s the federal government’s worst performer when it comes to FOIA requests? The State Department. This agency earned a failing grade, in part, for only processes 17 percent of records requests.

The Environmental Protection Agency did not fare much better, earning a “D” from CEG. The EPA has a big backlog of FOIA requests and high wait times for getting a response. CEG reported that “EPA and Department of Justice performed substantially worse at processing FOIA requests.”

But the agency’s low grade shouldn’t be surprising says Chris Horner, a senior fellow at the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Horner recently sued the EPA for “slow-walking” a FOIA request regarding emails from former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. The EPA told Horner there were 120,000 records pertaining to his request, but the agency said it could only process 100 records a month — meaning the FOIA request would take 100 years to finish.

So what was Horner after? He wanted records regarding the alias email account used by Jackson under the fake identity “Richard Windsor.” The EPA had given Horner about 3,000 emails in 2013, but has yet to fulfill the rest of his request.

The UK Guardian used CEG’s report as the basis for an article critical of Horner’s FOIA requests to the EPA, saying Horner “has made a veritable career out of demanding outsized amounts of information from government agencies – and questioning climate change.”

“You might think that this is an effort to counter the recently filed Windsor suit exposing EPA for slow-walking the request — 100 documents per month for 100 years — accompanied by several emails from EPA lawyers implying conscious retaliation,” Horner told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “I couldn’t possibly comment.”

Horner also produced evidence last year that EPA was stonewalling FOIA requests from conservative groups while expediting such requests for ideologically-aligned environmental groups. The EPA, however, denied such notions.

Unfortunately for the agency, a federal judge chastised it for lying about delaying FOIA requests to conservative groups. The case involved a FOIA request by Landmark Legal Foundation, started by conservative talk show host Mark Levin, for Jackson’s email requests.

“Thirty months after Landmark’s initial FOIA request, it remains unclear to this Court whether EPA undertook a comprehensive search of either official or personal email accounts belonging to the agency’s senior leadership,” Judge Royce Lamberth wrote in his opinion.

“Despite admonitions from this Court and others … EPA continues to demonstrate a lack of respect for the FOIA process,” the judge wrote. “Neither EPA nor its counsel has offered Landmark or this Court any indication of regret…During what should be a concerted effort to reaffirm the public’s trust in the EPA, the agency’s general refusal to accept responsibility for its mistakes throughout this case is baffling.”

An EPA spokeswoman explained the agency’s position on FOIA requests in a statement to TheDCNF:

We’re focused on creating more efficient work processes to ensure FOIAs responses are done more effectively and at a lower cost.  That includes adopting industry concepts and best practices into the delivery of information technology services in areas such as cloud computing, mobile technology and workplace standards.

We have improved our records management policies and procedures since the 2012 request at issue in the Landmark case. This includes recent updates to EPA’s Records Policies and new procedures regarding various electronic records.  The EPA is also working to increase the availability of expert assistance to staff processing FOIA responses to ensure better responses to complex FOIA requests.

A July 16, 2014, Inspector General report found that there is no bias in the EPA’s handling of FOIA fee waivers.  Many courts have upheld the Agency’s actions in processing FOIA requests.

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