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FCC head has no answer for FOIA redactions

The head of the Federal Communications Commission can’t explain why seemingly harmless emails from his agency were severely redacted when released under the Freedom of Information Act.

“I can’t answer why certain things are blacked out,” Tom Wheeler told the House Oversight Committee on Tuesday.

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“I’ve got to tell you that how we respond to FOIA is done by career staff not in my supervision, done by longstanding procedures,” he added.

Journalists and advocates watching the FCC’s development of new net neutrality regulations have questioned how much involvement the White House had during the agency’s rulemaking. The FCC is an independent agency and opponents have feared that President Obama — who has long been a net neutrality advocate — had an undue influence on the process.

Earlier this year, Vice revealed that a number of emails it had received under FOIA were heavily redacted. But when unredacted versions of those emails were obtained by the House Oversight Committee ahead of Tuesday morning’s hearing, the messages were largely innocuous.

In one, for instance, Wheeler was correcting the record about a recent media report to top Obama aide John Podesta.

Wheeler’s lack of authority on the FCC's FOIA process didn’t please committee Republicans, who accused the agency of being overly secretive in general and especially so during the net neutrality proceeding.

“The FCC’s track record of responding to FOIA requests is weak at best,” said committee Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzFox News contributor mocks Elizabeth Warren with photo at Disneyland Eric Trump blasts professor at alma mater Georgetown: ‘A terrible representative for our school’ Matt Schlapp: Trump's policies on Russia 'two or three times tougher than anything' under Obama MORE (R-Utah), while accusing it of denying more than 40 percent of all requests under the open records law.

“This administration ought to take some lessons in FOIA and how to respond to it because I’m tired of having heads of agencies saying ‘I don’t know anything about it,’” said Chaffetz.

“This is the public’s right to know,” he added. “This is how the public understands what’s happening and not happening and your organization is redacting this information and it’s wrong.”

Wheeler agreed to have FCC officials respond to the panel with additional information about its FOIA procedures by the end of the month. 

After the hearing, an FCC spokesperson told The Hill that the agency staffers working on FOIA “fully comply with the law when determining whether to release a record and strictly adhere to Department of Justice’s FOIA guidance.”

The department’s FOIA guidance calls for agencies to occasionally defer to other agencies — including the White House’s Executive Office of the President — if records originate with or contain information relevant to that agency. 

– Updated at 5:13 p.m.