Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) officials blocked the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by charging made-up, exorbitant fees such as $30,000 for documents staffers admitted were “easy to find,” according to internal emails obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation Investigative Group.
A VA hospital used the technique to get watchdogs and activists to drop their requests after a lone FOIA officer there helped expose corruption by the facility’s director. The director paid the FOIA officer to stay home without access to sensitive information, leaving the facility without anyone to process the requests.
The efforts at VA to block FOIA requests are reminiscent of those at the Department of State that torpedoed Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. As secretary of state, Clinton’s desire to keep her emails from being discovered by reporters prompted the use of a private server located in her New York mansion.
Clinton’s decision in turn led to the State Department’s implausible response to journalists who filed FOIAs during her tenure that Clinton had no emails.
Some VA responses were even more implausible. An employee at the Caribbean VA hospital in Puerto Rico, for example, sought emails between himself and Chief of Staff Antonio Sanchez. Wayne Weldge, head of FOIA for the VA’s Sun Belt region, responded: “The estimated fees associated with processing your request are $30,933.90.”
The entire fee had to be paid in advance, according to VA, which also said it might keep the money without giving up the emails.
“You must pay the estimated fees stated above before we perform any more work to process your request,” Weldge wrote. Then, in italics, he continued: “Please understand that if VHA finds records responsive to your request and, if a FOIA exemption authorizes withholding these records in whole or in part, VA may not release the records to you even though you have pre-paid the search fees.”
Weldge allowed Sanchez instead of the agency’s IT office to filter his emails and compile them for release, just as Clinton was allowed to do.
An invoice for the fees revealed that Sanchez is paid $338,000 annually and claimed that responding to the request would require 162 hours of the boss’s time. Another 53 hours of processing would supposedly have to be done by an employee who makes $110,000 annually.
A “Notes” portion of the estimate sheet that showed how the fees were calculated said “Close Enough.”
In an email to Weldge, Sanchez said responding to the FOIA request would not require much work.
“I would say 30-45 days as I am out of VA this week and next week will be only on Monday. [The employee] has sent me emails in reference to official travel arrangements only as he doesn’t work for me directly so I anticipate will not be a lot. Emails will be saved in my outlook so doing a search on it will be easy to find,” the email stated.
The VA FOIA office then charged the requestor for 162 hours of the chief of staff’s time, which is a month, even though the chief’s response clearly said he wouldn’t get to the task for at least two weeks.
Then, even though the requester asked for the emails in digital format, which is expressly permitted under FOIA, VA officials decided to print them and charge for photocopying, claiming they didn’t have a disc drive.
The emails provide a disturbing peek inside the murky world of FOIA processing, where journalists routinely submit lawful requests to federal agencies only to be met with an illogical response or none at all, or impenetrable fee calculations. The FOIA provides no penalties for agencies or individual employees who violate the law.
Dewayne Hamlin, director of the Caribbean VA hospital, tried to fire its FOIA/Privacy Officer Rosayma Lopez, openly charging her with refusing an order to fabricate evidence to be used to fire another employee, Joseph Colon, after Colon alerted top brass that Hamlin had been arrested and caught with regulated pills for which he had no prescription.
After Lopez’s firing was blocked by ethics authorities, Hamlin paid her to stay home for a year. He then offered her $305,000 to resign — the largest such settlement ever at VA — with no discernible justification other than using taxpayer money to remove a threat to his job.
The VA’s national general counsel defended Hamlin’s action, but Lopez has not accepted the offer, saying she only wants to serve veterans honorably.
Ethics authorities then ordered Lopez return to work, but VA officials moved her to a trailer without basic tools required to do her job. FOIAs were routed to Weldge’s office at VA’s regional office in Florida, where Hamlin had previously worked.
The Florida office sought to deflect FOIAs by hiding behind unusually aggressive interpretations of the law’s exemptions and massive fees for simple requests. (RELATED: Feds Put Credit Card Felon In Charge of Major VA Purchasing Program)
The office charged $100 when a requester wanted to know the hospital’s phone numbers. In another example, when an employee sought information on a boss’ selection, he was charged $568, with no explanation.
When an employee wanted to get a ranking sheet that would show the numerical score for each applicant for a position, the office admitted only a few sheets of paper were involved, yet claimed it would require eight hours of a highly-level employee. The requester dropped the request.
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