Opinion: Op-Eds

'Most transparent administration ever' keeps carbon tax plans secret

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Op-Eds,Treasury,Analysis,Competitive Enterprise Institute,FOIA

When "the Most Transparent Administration in History" doesn't want you to know something, you will not find out about whatever it is without a lot of work.

A year ago, the Competitive Enterprise Institute filed two Freedom of Information Act requests with the Department of Treasury to obtain documents describing its thoughts, plans and collaborators on building support for a carbon tax.

CEI Senior Fellow Christopher Horner had heard the Obama administration might go in this direction after its attempt to enact a cap-and-trade scheme failed a second time in Congress.

Specifically, CEI sought documents from Treasury's Office of Legislative Affairs and its environment and energy office, which would likely administer a carbon tax should one be enacted.

It took from August 2012 to March 2013 just to get Treasury to agree that, first, CEI had a right to the documents under the federal Freedom of Information Act; two, CEI should not be charged for them; and, three, the 13,000 documents would be produced on a monthly schedule from April through August.

At first, Treasury tried to charge CEI $1,800 to photocopy the documents, even though they already were in electronic form and CEI specifically requested them in that form.

So, August 2013 is shaping up as a big month for document production at Treasury. That's because, so far, Treasury has turned over just 329 responsive documents -- and that's counting each page as its own document, even though some of the documents go on for several pages.

There has been a lot of whining and excuse-making along the way. Treasury has claimed the search term "carbon" is too broad. Staffers in the Most Transparent Administration in History are trained -- yes, trained, CEI learned in another email we uncovered -- to claim things are "overbroad" just to muck up the process.

Fine, said CEI. Look only for uses likely to come up in the work of an office established to distribute revenues from a carbon tax -- "carbon tax," "carbon levy," "carbon fee," "carbon charge," "carbon cap," "price on carbon" or "tax on carbon."

That changes everything, Treasury said. There are far fewer documents that respond to the narrowed request. How many? We'll get back to you.

Given the response from Treasury and from the Environmental Protection Agency whenever Obama efforts to push a carbon tax are probed, it seems obvious something is amiss.

On another FOIA front, CEI has been pursuing what top EPA officials had to say about carbon, carbon taxes and the war on coal. In that case, EPA agreed to turn over 12,000 emails in four tranches of 3,000 each.

The agency eventually provided 9,600 -- including a lot of useless information, such as the daily Washington Post headlines. Nearly all the substantive emails were redacted to a comical degree.

And, curiously, Gina McCarthy, EPA's new administrator but then head of the Air and Radiation Office, had almost nothing to say to her senior EPA colleagues about carbon, carbon taxes and the war on coal despite the fact coal is a major factor in regulating air pollution.

So how did she communicate with her boss and other top staffers? Text messages, we learned. She was often seen texting during congressional hearings. So, CEI requested her phone records for the 18 days she was known to have appeared before Congress. EPA said it had no responsive records.

No, wait, EPA says. She did text. But all the texts -- every single one -- on her government-issued PDA, which she is supposed to use at least primarily for work, were personal messages to family members.

How was that determined? Did someone look at her government-issued, taxpayer-paid phone and officially verify that none of those messages were agency records, which she is required by law to retain?

It's impossible to say. Treasury and EPA aren't giving up the details -- to CEI, other organizations or even members of Congress. And nobody in the Most Transparent Administration In History seems to care.

Brian McNicoll is senior director of communications at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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