POLITICS

Congressmen demand investigation of EPA selectively blocking FOIAs

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Photo - Sen. Charles Grassley, R-IA, today demanded that the Department of Justice investigate the Environmental Protection Agency for possibly erecting improper or illegal administrative obstacles to Freedom of Information Act requests for government documents. Joining Grassley were Sen. David Vitter, R-LA, and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-CA. (AP Photo)
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-IA, today demanded that the Department of Justice investigate the Environmental Protection Agency for possibly erecting improper or illegal administrative obstacles to Freedom of Information Act requests for government documents. Joining Grassley were Sen. David Vitter, R-LA, and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-CA. (AP Photo)
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An internal email that appears to counsel Environmental Protection Agency officials on delaying or obstructing inconvenient Freedom of Information Act requests has sparked congressional demands for an investigation.

Senators David Vitter, R-LA, and Charles Grassley, R-IA, and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-CA, said in a letter today to Attorney General Eric Holder that the investigation should seek to determine if EPA officials stonewall FOIA requests.

The EPA staff that processes the public's request for federal documents "is poorly trained, does not place a priority on responding to FOIA requests, and appears to be more interested in erecting barriers than in ensuring requests are promptly and properly fulfilled," the letter states.

Vitter is the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Grassley is the top GOP member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Issa is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The EPA has been under increasing scrutiny in recent months from Congress, the agency's Inspector-General, some media outlets, and outside groups.

The scrutiny was occasioned by revelations that top agency officials, including then-Administrator Lisa Jackson have been using government email accounts with fake names, or private email accounts, to conduct official business.

Such practices violate federal laws and regulations designed to insure that FOIA requestors get all government documents that are responsive to their requests and to insure a complete archival record of government documents is assembled.

The letter from the three Republicans cites an email chain in which EPA officials discuss ways to derail requests for information under FOIA, including asking the requester to narrow the amount of information sought and demanding high fees to produce documents.

A January 2011 email by EPA lawyer Geoffrey Wilcox suggested that bureaucratic roadblocks are a standard way of doing business in the agency.

"Unless something has changed, my understanding is that there are some standard protocols we usually follow in such FOIA requests," Wilcox wrote.

"One of the first steps is to alert the requestor that they need to narrow their request because it is overbroad, and secondarily that it will probably cost more than the amount of $ they agreed to pay.

"Unless and until they respond to that, and tell us they will pay more, we usually tell them in writing that we are suspending our response to their request until they get back to us."

That could be read as sanctioning obstruction of FOIA requests officials may deem as hostile, the three Republicans wrote in their letter to Holder. Or it could mean anyone requesting documents would face the same hurdles.

"Either way, his guidance appears to suggest that the EPA automatically informs a petitioner that their request is over broad and that fees will be more than what the requestor agreed to pay," according to the letter to Holder.

A March 2009 FOIA directive issued by Holder instructs agencies to "work proactively and respond to requests promptly" to release documents sought under FOIA.

The documents in question that sparked today's letter to Holder were requested by Christopher Horner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Horner had requested documents concerning then EPA Region 6 Administrator Al Armendariz. Armendariz resigned after a video was released by Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-OK, of the EPA official saying his agency approached its regulatory targets in the same way as the Roman Army once used crucifixion to control a conquered populace.

Horner first revealed the use by government officials of secret and private email accounts in his book published last Fall, "The Liberal War Against Transparency."

An EPA spokeswoman told The Washington Examiner that the agency is "strongly committed to transparency and strictly complies with open government laws." She declined to address specific issues raised in the letter to Holder.

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner Watchdog investigative reporting team. He can be reached at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com.

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