Watchdog Article: SUNSHINE WEEK: Federal agencies fail advocacy group's FOIA test

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Most federal departments failed an advocacy group's test of their compliance with the Freedom of Information Act's most basic requirements, according to a report to be released today.

Cause of Action submitted FOIA requests in April 2012 to 16 federal departments seeking information on their spending for promotional projects between January 2009 and April 2012. The spending was supposed to be limited as a result of a presidential executive order.

The FOIA requires that government officials respond to such requests within 20 working days, but most of the departments queried by Cause of Action fell far short of the law.

The Washington-based transparency advocacy group received 114 individual responses from offices within the 16 departments that received the FOIA request.

* Twenty nine of the offices, or 25 percent, have since provided no documents.

* Twenty six of the offices, or 22 percent, took longer than 90 days to provide any response.

* The average response time for the 86 offices that provided at least some documents was 75 business days.

* Based on Cause of Action's grading scale, the average grade for the 16 federal departments was a C-.

In its report, Cause of Action noted that its results mirrored those produced by other groups that have tested government compliance with the FOIA:

"In June 2012, Bloomberg News submitted a total of 57 FOIA requests to federal agencies asking for travel records for Cabinet Secretaries and top officials in the federal government. Their findings were abysmal. Only 8 agencies provided the documents within the 20-day period required by law and a mere 7 more provided responses within 21 to 30 day extension.

"Another way of looking at this: only 26 percent of the federal agencies were compliant with FOIA laws. Further, almost half of the agencies did not provide documents at all by September 14, 2012, and in December 2012 Bloomberg reported that 19 agencies had failed provided responses within the six-month timeframe. "

Daniel Epstein, Cause of Action's executive director, said the results described in the report illustrates "an inconsistency at best and a failure at worst by federal agencies in ... compliance with basic FOIA protocol."

Epstein called the report "a resource that should motivate federal agencies to improve their FOIA process and demonstrate to the public that this administration is not taking seriously their commitment to transparency."

The report can be read on the Cause of Action web site.

Mark Tapscott is executive editor of The Washington Examiner.

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