For Immediate Release, January 14, 2021

Contact:

Meg Townsend, Center for Biological Diversity, (971) 717-6409, mtownsend@biologicaldiversity.org
Adam Beitman, Sierra Club, (202) 675-2385, adam.beitman@sierraclub.org
Marie Logan, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2000, mlogan@earthjustice.org
Chris Sellers, Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, (631) 806-1526, chrissellersedgi@gmail.com
Adam Carlesco, Food & Water Watch, (202) 683-4925, acarlesco@fwwatch.org

New Congress Called on to Fix Public Records Delays, Political Manipulation

WASHINGTON— More than a dozen conservation and transparency groups called on the new Congress today to fix systemic issues and close loopholes that allow federal agencies to delay releases of public records under the Freedom of Information Act.

“It’s time for Congress to step in and fix what our executive branch agencies have broken,” said Meg Townsend, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Political appointees have been strategically delaying releases of public records that let the American people know what federal agencies are doing. These are records that allow us to hold our government accountable for actions that affect human health and the environment. By the time agencies finally release anything meaningful, often months and even years after they are requested, the information is stale.”

A letter sent by the groups to Congress today details examples of strategic, politically motivated delays in responding to FOIA requests by the Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies responsible for actions that affect human health and the environment. These include:

  • The Interior Department withholding records of Secretary David Bernhardt in response to a FOIA request about the agency’s decision to gut national monuments;
  • The EPA sitting on communication records of former administrator Scott Pruitt until after he left office amid numerous political scandals;
  • The Interior Department stringing out a release of records regarding the agency’s actions in response to an executive order by President Trump that specifically directed the heads of agencies to exploit the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act and Clean Water act to “stimulate” the economy in response to COVID-19.

“Agencies’ egregious delays in responding to FOIA requests have undermined work to hold the Trump administration accountable for its attacks on clean air and water and to uncover corrupt activities from the likes of Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke, Andrew Wheeler and their aides,” said Elena Saxonhouse, a senior attorney with the Sierra Club. “We are asking Congress to make these improper delays a top priority for reforming the Freedom of Information Act so that the public can benefit from greater transparency and accountability.”

The groups are asking Congress to waive all relevant privileges for records that have not been produced six months after an agency conducts a search in response to a FOIA request. They also suggested that Congress require agencies to justify any withholdings or redactions at the request stage or waive their right to withhold the information.

“Justice delayed is justice denied; this is especially true when it comes to FOIA,” said Adam Carlesco, attorney with Food & Water Watch. “Effective governmental oversight must happen in real time and public accountability efforts are hamstrung when executive agencies delay public records for political purposes.”

A third recommendation aims to address the lag time that can occur when an agency performs a search for records but then sits on the records for many months. The groups recommend that Congress require agencies to either promptly review records and release them or perform a new search. Under this model, if an agency delayed releasing records beyond one month after its search, it would have to conduct a new search to locate any additional responsive records that may have been created or received during the delay.

“The Trump administration hamstrung Freedom of Information Act requests, creating political delays that kept the American public in the dark about what their government was doing. But a transition to a Biden administration, by itself, will not resolve major loopholes in the law that have allowed the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act to be undermined over the last four years,” said Marie Logan, an attorney with Earthjustice. “Congress must act now to close these loopholes and fix what has been broken.”

“The Freedom of Information Act is a pillar of our democracy, among our most important means for holding government officials accountable for what they say and do,” said Chris Sellers, member of the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative and professor of environmental history at Stony Brook University. “But for the last four years, the often interminable delays in responses to FOIA requests have severely eroded that accountability—this in an administration cozier with industry than any other in modern times. Congressional action proposed here is much needed, to ensure that FOIA lives up to its original intent and its promise.”

Today’s letter was sent to the leadership of the House Natural Resources, Oversight, and Energy and Commerce committees as well of the Senate Judiciary and Senate Energy and Natural Resources committees.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with more than 3.5 million members and supporters. In addition to protecting every person's right to get outdoors and access the healing power of nature, the Sierra Club works to promote clean energy, safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and legal action. For more information, visit www.sierraclub.org.

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.

Food & Water Watch is a national non-profit organization that mobilizes people to build political power to move bold and uncompromised solutions to the most pressing food, water, and climate problems of our time. We work to protect people’s health, communities, and democracy from the growing destructive power of the most powerful economic interests.

The Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI) analyzes federal environmental data, websites, institutions, and policy. We seek to improve environmental data stewardship and to promote environmental health and environmental justice.