Gray campaign falls short on FOIA stance

Curious whom D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray met with as he pondered and then embarked on a run for mayor?

For more than three months Mr. Gray’s office and the council’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) officer failed to fulfill a written request submitted by The Washington Times seeking just that information.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gray recently denied a request by D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles to expand the required time for the government to respond to FOIA requests. D.C. law gives the government 15 business days to respond to FOIA requests, with a 10-day extension in “unusual circumstances.”

The Gray campaign has criticized Mr. Nickles for presiding over “a record number of improperly denied FOIA requests,” and in August the police officers’ union sued the city for its alleged failure to respond in a timely manner to a FOIA request about the nonprofit group Peaceoholics.

“The activities of an official working on the taxpayers dime ought to be available in a timely manner,” said D.C. lawyer Thomas M. Susman, a director of government affairs with the American Bar Association and president of the D.C. Open Government Coalition. “With two weeks before an election, further delay could make the information irrelevant to the voting public.”

The Times filed a formal FOIA request by e-mail with Mr. Gray’s office on May 18, requesting access to “Mr. Gray’s appointments calendar from January 1, 2008, to the present, including all meetings with elected and government officials, lobbyists, business people and community groups or representatives; all community meetings, public appearances, conferences, travel and speaking engagements; and all ceremonies and ribbon-cuttings related to his role as chairman of the D.C. Council.”

The e-mail was addressed to Mr. Gray’s chief of staff, Dawn Slonneger, and copied to his spokeswoman, Doxie McCoy, among other Gray staff members, and to Brian K. Flowers, general legal counsel for the D.C. Council.

That same day, Ms. McCoy confirmed by e-mail that the request had been received and forwarded it to the council’s FOIA officer, assistant secretary to the council Ronald Collins.

On June 24 — more than 15 business days from the date of the request — Mr. Gray, who has campaigned on a platform of openness and transparency in government, was quoted in news reports as saying the current response time of 15 business days is “sufficient.” The remark was made in response to a letter sent to the council chairman by Mr. Nickles seeking legislation to extend the amount of time the city has to respond to FOIA requests in “unusual circumstances,” and as other open-government proposals were pending before the council.

In July, Mr. Collins, whose office staff was assembled by and reports to Mr. Gray, told The Times he never received its request — despite written confirmation from the council chairman’s office to the contrary. On Aug. 6, Mr. Collins then wrote in an e-mail to The Times that Mr. Gray’s calendar would be available “no later than August 13.”

On Monday, The Times once again requested that Mr. Gray’s office and the council secretary’s office comply with the city’s public information law. His office replied that it had turned the information over to Mr. Collins, who said the information “will be available for pickup on Wednesday.”

Asked about the delay, and about their positions on the legislative debate over the timeliness of FOIA processing, Mr. Gray’s office and the council secretary’s office declined to comment.

“If the mayor failed to respond, as apparently the chairman has, we would be killed by the council and the press,” Mr. Nickles said.

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