- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2014

With midterm elections not far off, Democratic opposition researchers are armed with thousands of pages of records obtained from the Environmental Protection Agency through the Freedom of Information Act, far outpacing known Republican efforts to pry information loose from the agency, records show.

Democrats have filed more than 50 FOIA requests, including lots seeking correspondence between Republicans and EPA officials — letters that operatives will scour for any hint that politicians’ rhetoric doesn’t square with how they conduct themselves outside of public view. Their findings help supply a steady flow of material for damaging news stories and campaign ads.

Twenty-eight of the Democrats’ requests have been completed. Most resulted in the EPA release of documents with some reports that a search yielded no records. The other requests are being processed or await assignment.

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Republican political committees have filed just four requests since 2012, and none of those has been fulfilled. One request that has languished for more than two years sought correspondence between John F. Kerry, a senator at the time, and EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson.

EPA officials said they don’t play favorites when it comes to handling requests and go beyond many other agencies in posting online the information they release in response to requests.

** FILE ** Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., left, delivers his opening remarks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2009, before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on clean energy jobs. Seated behind him , from left are, then Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman  Jon Wellinghoff, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
** FILE ** Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., left, delivers his opening remarks ... more >

“We process all incoming FOIA requests with the same consideration regardless of affiliation, not-for-profit status, geography etc.,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia wrote in an email. “And in honor of transparency, we share all of our FOIA requests and communications online for the public to see.”

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As transparency advocates test the government’s commitment to the FOIA during “Sunshine Week,” the requests show how open records laws are used by more than journalists and government watchdog groups.

Campaign operatives routinely employ the law to explore the fertile ground between what politicians say in public and how they operate behind closed doors. Democrats make no apologies for their aggressive pursuit of records.

In recent weeks, Democratic researchers have obtained hundreds of pages of EPA documents on GenOn Energy, which is where Senate candidate Mark Jacobs, Iowa Republican, worked as president and chief financial officer.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has received dozens of requests as well as correspondence with Rep. Steve Daines, a Republican running for Senate in Montana, and with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is up for re-election in Kentucky.

“The DSCC believes an aggressive research operation is crucial to fully examining the records of Republican Senate candidates who back a special interest agenda that’s good for billionaires like the Koch Brothers and bad for nearly everyone else in the country,” DSCC press secretary Justin Barasky wrote Tuesday in an email to The Washington Times.

The lack of EPA records on the Republican side doesn’t mean Republicans are less aggressive than Democrats. Campaigns sometimes file requests through intermediaries — “regular citizens” — so as not to attract undue attention inside agencies, said Jeffrey Berkowitz, a research consultant who advises campaigns on open-records requests.

Mr. Berkowitz said clients sometimes don’t want anyone to know what documents they are trying to track down, so they use intermediaries with no outward political affiliation to file requests.

The FOIA process isn’t easy. Months and sometimes even years can pass before agencies respond to records requests. Even then, agencies have a host of exemptions with which they can black out huge swaths of paperwork, shielding records from public view.

“You have to start early and you see with the national political organizations, they’re often thinking very far ahead.”

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