Appeals court rules against Justice in DeLay FOIA case

A federal appeals court on Tuesday said that the Justice Department did not provide good enough reason to withhold documents related to its investigation into former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

The appeals court overturned a district court ruling that had allowed the department to withhold documents related to its case against DeLay. It remanded the decision back to the district court, which will give the Justice Department another opportunity to argue why the documents should not be released.

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The documents were requested by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) in 2010 under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The groups have sought information for why Justice chose not to prosecute DeLay (R-Texas) for alleged crimes related to the investigation and conviction of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

DeLay was ensnared in the FBI’s investigation into Abramoff after two of his former aides were convicted of conspiring with the super lobbyist. In 2010, DeLay announced that the Department of Justice said it would not bring charges against him.

CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said the decision was a “big win for anyone who believes that powerful people should not be shielded from scrutiny when they flagrantly violate the law.”

The appeals court said there was a public interest in having the documents released, given the fact that the FBI was investigating a case of political corruption.

“The district court drastically understated the public interest when it ‘acknowledge[d] that there may be some ... minimal public interest’ at stake,” wrote Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson of the U.S. District Appeals Court.

The appellate court said the requested documents “could shed light on how the FBI and DOJ handle the investigation and prosecution of crimes that undermine the very foundation of our government,” and explain “whether the government had the evidence but nevertheless pulled its punches.”

Justice had withheld all documents related to the case in response to CREW’s FOIA request. It largely cited privacy concerns of DeLay, potential witnesses or informants and even the FBI.

The Justice Department also said that withholding the documents was necessary “to protect procedures and techniques used by FBI [agents] during the investigation.” 

A department spokeswoman said it was still reviewing the decision. 

The appeals court said if the agency could provide further evidence of why the other exemptions were necessary, they could still keep the documents.