Watchdog: Accountability

Examiner Editorial: Transparency is vital all year, not just in Sunshine Week

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Opinion,Editorial,Barack Obama,Accountability,Justice Department,Transparency,Washington Examiner,James Madison,FOIA

Sunday is James Madison’s birthday. He is justly known as the “Father of the Constitution” for his work in Philadelphia at the constitutional convention, as a co-author of The Federalist Papers, and for securing adoption of the Bill of Rights in the first Congress. But Madison is also known as the first great voice in American politics on behalf of open government, as seen in his familiar admonition that “knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Thus, Sunday is also celebrated as the first day of Sunshine Week (March 16-22), marking both Madison’s birth and the passage in 1966 of the federal Freedom of Information Act. Throughout the week, public officials, civic groups, journalists, nonprofits, historians and citizens across the country will mark Sunshine Week with commemorations, forums, speeches and opinion articles in the news media.

"People who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."
 

Many of those events will be organized and hosted by members of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, thanks to the generous assistance of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. “Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger,” according to the organizers.

It is sometimes thought that transparency in government is only a concern for journalists and politicians. The reality is that transparency is essential to the official accountability at the heart of the American experience. A new study released by the Project on Government Oversight in conjunction with Sunshine Week makes clear that failure by officials to heed the transparency requirements of the Freedom of Information Act can have serious consequences for individual citizens.

The POGO study used the FOIA and other means to obtain copies of hundreds of heretofore unpublished reports by the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) concerning more than 650 cases between fiscal years 2002 to 2013 in which government lawyers and other department employees committed serious offenses.

“The violations include instances in which attorneys who have a duty to uphold justice have, according to [OPR], misled courts, withheld evidence that could have helped defendants, abused prosecutorial and investigative power, and violated constitutional rights,” POGO said. The violations span the Bush and Obama administrations.

The government’s record on these matters has been spotty at best over the years. The Clinton administration extolled disclosure of such cases, but often failed to live up to its promises. Transparency and accountability are of particular importance when it concerns how the government conducts its civil and criminal justice investigations and prosecutions. As POGO observed in its study, when reports like these are kept in the dark, “the department, its lawyers, and the internal watchdog office itself are insulated from meaningful public scrutiny and accountability.”

President Obama promised “the most transparent administration in history.” Sunshine Week and the Justice Department are a suitable time and place to begin delivering on that promise.

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