GOP report slams FCC on open records

FCC, Net Neutrality
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The Federal Communications Commission might be deliberately withholding public records, according to a Republican-led report released this week. 

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee report concluded that the FCC's is either incompetent or intentionally misused redactions under the Freedom of Information Act to withhold internal communication about its controversial Internet regulations. 

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"The agency either misunderstands how to use redactions, raising concerns of competency, or the agency intentionally misuses redactions, raising concerns of integrity," according to the report. "Given the numerous examples in which the FCC improperly redacts information, this may be a deliberate tactic to withhold information from the public."

The conclusion was reached in a 40-page report that concluded the open records process is broken within the broader federal government. About a quarter of the report was dedicated to side-by-side comparisons of FCC documents, which were redacted when sent to journalists but provided in full to the committee. 

The redacted FCC emails and documents were handed over to journalists last year. They related to the commission's development of net neutrality rules

Republicans on the committee, who oppose the rules, obtained the un-redacted documents as part of its investigation into alleged coordination between the White House and the independent agency. 

The report concluded that the FCC consistently misapplies the deliberative process exemption and another that is aimed at protecting individuals from a clear invasion of privacy. 

For example, Republicans pointed out that the FCC made a redaction, "Every time 'TW' appears in the address line of an email." Those initials are connected to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. Many references to other commissioners and FCC employees, however, were not redacted, according to the report. 

"It is unclear why FCC has determined that releasing the initials of the top agency official acting his official capacity is a 'clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy.' What is clear, however, is that FCC is not appropriately balancing the public interest in disclosure," the report concluded.  

The FCC pushed back, saying it complies with all requirements and guidance on FOIA. 

"The report incorrectly states that the FCC’s redactions conceal Chairman Wheeler’s participation in e-mails," FCC press secretary Kim Hart said in a statement. "While the FCC redacted information related to Chairman Wheeler’s internal FCC e-mail address, it used asterisks to fully disclose Chairman Wheeler’s presence in e-mails, which was made clear to requester and the committee."

Top Democrats on the Oversight Committee also called the report partisan and noted that the report was not approved by a vote.  

Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, defended the Obama's administration's commitment to openness, while saying the FOIA process must be improved. The House passed a broad reform bill Monday meant to give the public more access to government documents.