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Public interest group sues EPA for FOIA delays, claims agency ordered officials to ignore requests

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Another federal lawsuit has been filed alleging that senior Environmental Protection Agency officials violated the Freedom of Information Act, this time by instructing subordinates to ignore two FOIA requests from a non-profit advocacy group that is often critical of the agency.

Federal law requires agency officials to provide a substantive response to all FOIA requesters within 20 days of receiving their document requests. But the American Tradition Institute said in court documents made public today that EPA ignored ATI's requests filed last year for information concerning the federal agency's relationship with the Sierra Club and the American Lung Association.

"For nearly ten months and despite several entreaties by Plaintiff, Defendant EPA has produced no responsive records, and no substantive response to Plaintiff's requests, but only non-responsive and circular replies to Plaintiff's numerous attempts to obtain cooperation, thereby obstructing the FOIA process," ATI said in its complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The ATI complaint further noted that an "FOIA specialist with Defendant EPA informed Plaintiff that a superior official with Defendant removed both requests from the two FOIA officers originally assigned to handle them, instructing these officers to perform no work on the requests."

The complaint also said EPA had denied requests for fee waivers even though, according to ATI, the waiver provisions in the law were "designed to ensure public interest groups whose work is largely derived from obtaining records from government are not barred from accessing public records, and despite routinely providing waivers for requests of far less public interest."

The ALA and Sierra Club received substantial funding from the government via contracts and grants awarded by EPA, ATI alleged in its complaint. In return, the two groups lobby and litigate "for greater authority for EPA" and mount media "campaigns against politicians who challenge EPA," according to the complaint.

"This is not the EPA I once knew. The agency has a long history of public service, but is repeatedly failing to obey its own regulations - to the detriment of a public overwhelmed by a regulatory onslaught increasingly depriving the nation of jobs without meaningful protections in return," said David Schnare in a statement announcing the complaint.

Schnare is a former EPA enforcement attorney who now represents ATI in separate litigation in which the public interest group is challenging EPA's use of human subjects in environmental impact assessments.

Go here for additional information from ATI on its complaint and its background. Alisha Johnson, an EPA spokesman, said her agency is "reviewing the complaint and will respond accordingly."

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