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Lawmakers: How much money are feds wasting on FOIA suits?

Greg Nash

Bipartisan leaders on the Senate Judiciary Committee want to know how much money the government wastes during litigation to withhold government documents from public disclosure. 

Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.) on Friday asked the Government Accountability Office to determine how much money the government spends on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits in which it substantially lost or voluntarily relented. 

{mosads}”Withholding information from the public unless sued undermines the very spirit of FOIA and wastes significant taxpayer money in the process,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Gene Dodaro, the U.S. comptroller general. 

Media organizations and other transparency groups have criticized the executive brach for its tendency to withhold some documents from public records requests until a group is forced to sue. Among the numerous FOIA lawsuits in the courts are multiple ones relating to Hillary Clinton’s emails during her time at the State Department.

The law requires that the government release government documents unless they fall under a certain set of exemptions. Individuals requesting documents are allowed to sue if they believe records are improperly withheld. 

“Ideally, the government would properly process requests for information and release the relevant documents as appropriate under the law,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter. 

An Associated Press study earlier this year found that the government cited those exemptions more than half a million times in 2014, a record high. The review also found the government acknowledged that it improperly withheld documents — at least partially — in one out of every three cases that was appealed. 

Agencies are already required to detail the costs associated with public records litigation. But there is currently no breakdown of how much money is spent to defend legitimately withheld documents and what amount is spent on litigation the government substantially loses. Many times in those cases, the government is forced to pay the other party’s legal fees.

Lawmakers in both chambers have introduced legislation to reform the FOIA process. One of the largest changes in their bills would require agencies to adopt a policy that presumes disclosure and would ban denials of records based on technicalities. 

Obama directed agencies to adopt this policy when he first came into office, but the legislation would seek to make it permanent and not subject to the discretion of future presidents. Critics have also said agencies have not always adhered to that mandate.  

Tags Chuck Grassley FOIA Patrick Leahy

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