Bipartisan Hill Leaders Demand Probe Of Feds’ Poor FOIA Compliance

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Two of Capitol Hill’s most outspoken transparency voices — Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. [crscore]Jason Chaffetz[/crscore] — want the Comptroller General to investigate why federal officials routinely ignore or produce heavily redacted documents in 77 percent of all public records requests.

Grassley, an Iowa Republican who is chairman of the Senate Judicial Committee, and Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who is chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said in a letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro that the 77 percent figure is “a record high.” Dodaro is chief of the Government Accounting Office, Congress’s watchdog agency.

The Grassley/Chaffetz request comes after a March Associated Press report that found the 77 percent figure, as well as uncovered Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits filed in federal court reached an all-time high in 2015.

The federal FOIA became law in 1966 and guarantees citizens access to all government documents, subject only to nine exemptions like privacy, law enforcement and national security considerations.

“These are troubling statistics that warrant further investigation into how, and the extent to which, the federal government responds to FOIA requests,” Grassley and Chaffetz said in their letter.

Also signing the letter were Sen. [crscore]Patrick Leahy[/crscore] of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on Grassley’s panel, and Rep. [crscore]Elijah Cummings[/crscore] of Maryland, the top Democrat on Chaffetz’ committee, as well as Sen. [crscore]John Cornyn[/crscore], a Texas Republican, and Rep. [crscore]Darrell Issa[/crscore], a California Republican.

Reporters “repeatedly” tell Congress about their FOIA problems, including “indefinite delays, excessive redactions, and other unnecessary barriers to accessing information,” the letter said.

“The Freedom of Information Act is a vital tool that protects one of the cornerstones of our nation: the American public’s right to know what its government is up to,” the letter said. “Given FOIA’s importance, effective and complete implementation of its statutory requirements is necessary to ensure that the public can exercise its right to know.”

The members asked GAO to: conduct a “comprehensive” review of the federal government’s compliance with FOIA; audit agencies’ compliance with FOIA; catalog of the number of FOIA exemptions as used by each agency; report how difficult it would be to allow non-custodians of records to search for responsive records; relate methods agencies use to reduce FOIA backlogs; and describe the number of times in the last 16 years courts have found agency personnel wrongly withheld records.

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Kathryn Watson