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EDITORIAL: Foiled FOIAs

Politicized Justice Department skirts the law

- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sometimes the word "scandal" gets thrown around too lightly. But when the Department of Justice (DOJ) blocks the public's right to information, blatantly politicizes its practices and appears to break the law, it qualifies as a legitimate scandal. That appears to be the case after revelations yesterday by whistle-blower J. Christian Adams. His report is of concern to press outlets of all ideological stripes (or none) because basic rights of the public and a free press are under assault.

At issue are multiple document requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), one of the most important "open government" laws on the books. "FOIA requests from liberals or politically connected civil-rights groups are often given same day turn-around by the DOJ," wrote Mr. Adams for Pajamas Media, based on internal department documents he says are in his possession. "But requests from conservatives or Republicans face long delays, if they are fulfilled at all. The documents show a pattern of politicized compliance within the DOJ's Civil Rights Division."

FOIA requires each agency to respond to a requester within 20 days of receiving a demand for information, to provide an explanation why more time is needed to comply with the request, or to explain why it's declining to release information due to one of the narrow exemptions to the usual rules requiring transparency. Contrary to legal dictates, the Justice Department only abides by those time limits for liberal requests while stiffing FOIAs perceived to be conservative, according to the whistle-blower.

Mr. Adams listed 15 separate FOIAs by liberal groups, 11 of which were fulfilled within a single day; the other four received responses within five days. He then listed 10 requests from conservative outlets, some of them asking for identical or near-identical information. Result: One wait of four months, three of five months, three of six months and three without any reply at all. "In no instance does a conservative or Republican requester receive a reply in the time period prescribed by law."

The situation is actually worse than what this former Justice lawyer described. Even when nonliberal outlets received extremely belated replies, the results frequently were nonresponsive. Two of the 10 delayed responses involved requests from The Washington Times. On July 9, 2010, Justice informed Investigative Editor Jerry Seper that 82 documents, consisting of 155 pages, were applicable to his Jan. 4 request. However, the department claimed an exemption for all 155 pages. Not a single word of a single document was provided.

Justice bureaucrats made the mistake of stonewalling for five months a FOIA request from Rep. Frank Wolf, Virginia Republican, who now chairs the subcommittee that oversees the department's budget. Yesterday, Mr. Wolf wrote to Justice's inspector general demanding "an immediate investigation" into what he called "potentially, a violation of federal FOIA law." Hopefully, the intrepid Mr. Wolf can get to the bottom of the Obama administration's latest affront to limited government.

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