Judge blasts EPA on public records compliance

A federal judge sharply criticized the Environmental Protection Agency for botching its responses to a conservative group’s request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Royce Lamberth, a judge in the federal District Court for the District of Columbia, said the EPA either deliberately tried to evade a 2012 request from the Landmark Legal Foundation or acted carelessly in response to it.

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“Either scenario reflects poorly upon EPA and surely serves to diminish the public’s trust in the agency,” Lamberth wrote in a Monday opinion.

Nonetheless, Lamberth denied Landmark’s request to award it damages for the EPA’s destruction of records that might have been subject to its request, saying the group did not prove that the EPA acted in bad faith.

“While the existing record in this case does not support a holding that EPA acted in bad faith, it is obvious to this court that EPA has, once again, fumbled its way through its legally unambiguous FOIA obligations,” he wrote.

EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said the agency is pleased that Lambert did not award damages in the case. Additionally, the agency is working to improve the effectiveness and lower the costs of its processes for responding to FOIA requests, she said.

Landmark’s case stemmed from a request in which it sought to discover whether the agency delayed regulatory actions before the 2012 election for political purposes.

The case exposed a number of actions the EPA took in response to the request that Lamberth found troubling. Among them was that, when Landmark filed a lawsuit, the EPA’s attorneys told some employees to stop deleting records that could pertain to the case, but they did not send that message to the highest officials.

At times, the agency did not search for communications in some officials’ email accounts that Lamberth said would be obvious targets.

“Despite admonitions from this court and others … EPA continues to demonstrate a lack of respect for the FOIA process,” he wrote. “Neither EPA nor its counsel has offered Landmark or this court any indication of regret.”