Policy: Environment & Energy

EPA inspector general investigating claims agency used fees to block FOIA requests

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Environment,Michal Conger,EPA,Energy and Environment,FOIA

Acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Bob Perciasepe has asked the Inspector General for the EPA to investigate claims the agency hindered inquiries by conservative groups by charging fees routinely waived for watchdog and media groups.

Perciasepe announced the request for an audit of the agency’s Freedom of Information Act request fee decisions at a House Energy and Commerce Committee panel hearing on the EPA’s fiscal year 2014 budget Thursday morning.

In response to lawmakers’ concerns that the EPA targeted conservative groups in a manner similar to the IRS, Perciasepe said the EPA does not treat people differently when reviewing requests for information, regardless of their political leaning, according to the Hill.

Perciasepe also the shift to an online system means the EPA doesn’t always charge fees even when they are not formally waived, according to the Hill.

An EPA spokeswoman told The Washington Examiner the EPA makes its decisions based on legal requirements that are applied to all fee waiver requests, not on the identity of the reporter.

Documents obtained by the Competitive Enterprise Institute earlier this week showed the EPA waived fees for almost all FOIA requests from environmental groups friendly to its mission, but denied the majority of requests by conservative groups seeking to hold the agency accountable.

The real issue of the investigation is how the EPA treats groups like CEI whose interest is in broadly disseminating information valuable to the public, CEI Senior Fellow Chris Horner told The Washington Examiner. Many groups whose purpose isn’t the public benefit don’t get their fees waived, he explained, but the real problem is when watchdog and media groups are hindered by the fees.

“And the answer is they’ve stonewalled us, serially, in stark contrast to the groups they are colluding with to impose a shared agenda,” he said.

Horner disputed Perciasepe’s comment at Thursday morning’s hearing that the agency’s FOIA office is made up of career employees, not political appointees.

“This is a highly politicized body through and through, largely though not exclusively populated with environmentalist activists, that will not be cured with an election,” he said.

For 92 percent of requests from liberal groups, the EPA cooperated by waiving fees. Those requests came from the Natural Resources Defense Council, EarthJustice, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, The Waterkeeper Alliance, Greenpeace, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Center for Biological Diversity.

Of the requests that were denied, the EPA said the group either didn’t respond to requests for justification of a waiver, or didn’t express intent to disseminate the information to the general public, according to documents obtained by The Washington Examiner. 

CEI, on the other hand, had its requests denied 93 percent of the time. One request was denied because CEI failed to express its intent to disseminate the information to the general public. The rest were denied because the agency said CEI “failed to demonstrate that the release of the information requested significantly increases the public understanding of government operations or activities.”

Similarly, requests from conservative groups Judicial Watch and National Center for Public Policy Research were approved half of the time, and all requests from the Franklin Center and the Institute for Energy Research were denied.

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