Energy & Environment

EPA defends FOIA policy after criticism

A top attorney at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is defending the agency's handling of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests after criticisms from a key House Democrat.

Kevin Minoli, the EPA's principal deputy general counsel, argued in a Sunday letter to Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) that the changes made to the FOIA program in recent years help both EPA employees and people seeking public records and that they do not hinder the process.

The EPA started in 2013, under the Obama administration, to implement a FOIA Expert Assistance Team (FEAT) to handle complex or high-profile requests.

After Ryan Jackson, chief of staff to acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, told investigators with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that certain FOIA requests were put under more intense scrutiny because they were "politically charged," Cummings, the panel's top Democrat, accused the EPA of impeding requests.

But Minoli said that's not the case.

"The purpose of the FEAT was to provide strategic direction and project management assistance on the most challenging or complex FOIA requests," he said of the 2013 foundation of the team.

The FEAT team has also more intensely helped four offices within the Office of the Administrator to more thoroughly reform their FOIA processes, Minoli said.

The work of those teams "has laid a foundation from which EPA's FOIA program could be a model of what a FOIA program should be, not an example of what a FOIA program should not be," he wrote.

Minoli also defended the EPA's decision to notify senior officials throughout the process regarding high-profile requests, another decision that Cummings said delays requests and increases the opportunities for the EPA to hide information.

That means the public affairs and congressional affairs offices can be prepared if they need to be and senior officials can know about requests pertaining to themselves, among other benefits.

"This 'awareness review' process does not itself violate FOIA and can be completed without causing undue delay," he said.

Cummings said Minoli's letter isn't sufficient.

"This letter has some nice talking points, but it does not provide any of the documents I requested and does not answer any of the problematic questions I raised. Chairman [Trey] Gowdy should issue the subpoena I asked for and compel the agency to comply so that we can get the documents we need to do our job," Cummings said in a statement.

Cummings's letter last week came as part of the committee's investigation into numerous allegations against former EPA head Scott Pruitt regarding ethics, spending and other matters.

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