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posted: 12/24/2012 5:16 AM

Obama openness promise belied as disclosure suits outpace Bush

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  • The FOIA-related complaints jumped 28 percent to 720 in the last two years of President Barack Obama's first term from 562 in the last two years of President George W. Bush's second term, according to a study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

      The FOIA-related complaints jumped 28 percent to 720 in the last two years of President Barack Obama's first term from 562 in the last two years of President George W. Bush's second term, according to a study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
    Associated Press

 
Bloomberg News

Lawsuits filed in federal district court to force the government to comply with the Freedom of Information Act increased during the first term of the Obama administration.

The FOIA-related complaints jumped 28 percent to 720 in the last two years of President Barack Obama's first term from 562 in the last two years of President George W. Bush's second term, according to a study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

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This is the first time FOIA lawsuit data has been available in a central, public location, said Susan Long, a Syracuse University statistics professor and co-director of the data- gathering and research organization.

"We thought this was a hole that needed to be plugged," said Long. She leads a team of researchers who check federal district courts across the U.S. daily to see if there is activity on FOIA-related cases. The information is compiled at foiaproject.org.

Long said the records may lead to greater accountability at the Justice Department, which defends agencies in cases over information withheld from FOIA requesters.

"A little sunlight might change people's behavior a bit," she said.

The Department of Justice didn't reply to a Dec. 11 inquiry about the organization's findings, according to the foiaproject.org website. The department didn't immediately respond to an e-mail from Bloomberg News.

The study broke out the growth of FOIA-related complaints filed against individual U.S. agencies. The State Department showed the highest growth rate from the Bush administration to the Obama administration, more than doubling from 18 to 38 lawsuits, according to the study.

20-Day Deadline

Under FOIA, agencies have 20 working days to provide requested information or offer a timetable for eventual disclosure. If an agency denied a request in part or in full, it's required to explain why records were redacted or withheld. If an individual's administrative appeal is denied, a suit can be filed in federal district court to force disclosure. Those FOIA cases can take years to resolve.

The researchers said that due to the difficulties separating out FOIA suit filings that overlap different administrations, studying the last two years of each president's term gave a clearer view of their relative disclosure records.

Timeliness Pledge

Obama called FOIA, which was passed during President Lyndon Johnson's administration, the "most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open government," in a memo to department and agency heads on Jan. 21, 2009, his first full day in office.

Attorney General Eric Holder followed up Obama's statement with his own directive in March 2009, ordering government agencies to review their internal FOIA rules. In the memo, Holder said that timeliness of FOIA responses was "an essential component of transparency."

Bloomberg reporters in June filed requests under FOIA for records on taxpayer-supported travel in fiscal year 2011 for the top officers at 57 Cabinet departments and major government agencies. Only eight agencies complied within the legally required 20-day deadline. Six months after the filings, 38 out of 57 agencies had disclosed the travel records.

The lowest rate of response -- 40 percent -- has come from Obama's cabinet. Among executive departments, only Treasury, Homeland Security, Labor, Commerce, Transportation and Veterans Affairs released travel details.

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