Under former Administrator Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency developed a special team to process “complex” or “politically charged” Freedom of Information Act Requests, according to portions of a June interview transcript released July 13 by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.
“Deputy Administrator Perciasepe established this FEAT team — I can’t remember what the acronym stands for at this point, but I think it’s FOIA Expertise Assistance Team — in not the environmental information office but general counsel’s office to help process some of the more complex, maybe even politically charged FOIA productions,” said Pruitt’s Chief of Staff, Ryan Jackson, in the June 29 interview.
The transcripts were released as part of a public letter Cummings sent to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., requesting that Gowdy subpoena the EPA for documents on the agency’s FOIA policies.
In the interview Jackson characterized a FOIA request submitted by the Sierra Club for email communications between senior EPA officials and outside entities as an example of a “politically charged” request.
“There was no reason for it. There was no topic. It was just a fishing expedition. And so when I say it’s politically charged, there’s no real FOIA, you know, Freedom of Information Act reason for it; it is just simply submitted to us to see what we will produce,” said Jackson.
“There is a huge legitimate public interest, but I think it is really important at the same time to specify what you are interested in, because FOIA is not meant to allow open ended requests and to be as if, you know, the requester is a fly on the wall.”
It is not unusual for journalists and various interested organizations to regularly file open-ended FOIA requests to uncover communications with agency leadership and documents on undisclosed government actions. These requests have in the past received responses.
The Sierra Club, however, has made no secret of its opposition to many Trump administration policies. The organization took the EPA to court in early 2018 over the agency’s lack of response to FOIA requests filed in June and October of 2017. The suit ultimately led to the release of thousands of EPA documents that shed light on many questionable actions Pruitt had taken as administrator.
Scrutiny over those activities ultimately led to Pruitt’s resignation July 5, 2018.
The agency has also allowed political appointees to review requests and responses in the FOIA process, according to the interview transcripts.
“Information recently obtained by the Committee confirms that EPA is using a process in which political appointees review FOIA requests and hand-select requests to be processed by a different team if they are complex or ‘politically charged.’ Responses to FOIAs are at times deliberately delayed, and political appointees review responses to FOIA requests before they are released,” Cummings wrote.
The EPA has also been criticized for its “first in, first out” policy that prioritizes requests sent during the Obama administration, thereby delaying requests concerning current practices at the agency.
“It is the case that the 10 years of FOIA requests that were in a state of … I think they were not being responded to at all, some are cleared out. And then we move forward with the request that we receive in the order in which we received them,” said Jackson, adding that some program office without a backlog may be able to respond to requests immediately.
In his letter, Cummings called on the committee chairman to subpoena all documents relating to the ordering of FOIA requests, the prioritization process for those requests, those requests that were rejected for being not reasonably described, responses provided to requests for information from the Office of the Administrator, request reviews by political appointees and any review done by White House employees.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.