Weeks after President Obama took office, John Gage, the head of the largest union for federal workers in the country, gave a speech hailing the new administration as a champion for “transparency, accountability and good government.”
But in a sharply worded federal lawsuit filed last week, that same union, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), accused the Obama administration of keeping important government records secret.
Representing more than a half-million federal workers, the union sued the White House budget office and its director, Jacob J. Lew, in U.S. District Court in Washington over what it called the office’s “unlawful” failure to respond to an expedited Freedom of Information Act request.
The union filed the information request last month because it wants the Office of Management and Budget to turn over contingency plans on how federal agencies will handle a potential government shutdown, including a list of all federal employees who will continue to report to work “to protect life and property.”
AFGE officials also want to know about any guidance from the OMB regarding when federal agencies should implement shutdown plans and how they should do so.
“It’s not something that should be cavalierly handled,” Mr. Gage said. “If a shutdown goes on, there will be federal employees who are going to be hurt financially. They should know before the eve of a shutdown what is happening, and it should be done orderly and not in a last-minute rush.”
Asked about the lawsuit, an OMB spokeswoman Tuesday said the administration has taken unprecedented steps to improve government transparency and “shutdown planning is no exception.”
“We still believe there is an opportunity to avoid a costly government shutdown, which would cause undue harm to the lives of federal employees, the services millions of Americans rely on and the economic recovery,” spokeswoman Meg Reilly said.
“Plans for shutdown operations, which are governed by the law, remain in development and are pre-decisional at this time. When plans are finalized and reviewed for sensitive information, we will work with agencies to provide it to the public.”
In its request for shutdown plans, the union asked OMB for expedited processing, citing an urgent need for the information.
“For example, because this request relates to the possible shutdown of the United States Government due to a failure of its Congress and President to provide appropriated funds for government operations, it cannot be disputed that this is a matter of widespread and exceptional media interest in which there exists possible questions about the government’s integrity which effect public confidence,” AFGE Assistant General Counsel Andres M. Grajales wrote in the union’s request to OMB.
The request letter also cites Mr. Obama’s memo on the Freedom of Information Act issued days after he took office directing agencies to “adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure.” In that Jan. 21, 2009, memo, Mr. Obama said, “Information will not be withheld just because I say so. It will be withheld because a separate authority believes my request is well-grounded in the Constitution.”
Mr. Obama also moved to undo the 2001 guidance by Attorney General John Ashcroft that gave government agencies new grounds to deny the release of records. In new directives, Mr. Obama said agencies instead should presume records are open and that the “mere fact you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean you should.”
According to the AFGE lawsuit, however, OMB hasn’t provided a response to the union’s request as of March 29, nor has the office issued a determination on whether officials will grant the union’s request for expedited processing.
In the meantime, the union wants a federal judge to order OMB to turn over the shutdown contingency plans and pay for the union’s legal fees in connection with the lawsuit.
The administration’s handling of FOIA requests surfaced as a big issue on Capitol Hill last week. Republicans held a hearing scrutinizing a practice by political appointees in the Department of Homeland Security of approving the release of open records requests, which officials at the department said had been discontinued.
The Washington Times conducted a governmentwide FOIA audit in February 2010 by filing requests to more than 100 federal agencies for reports they prepared for the Obama-Biden presidential transition team.
Many agencies have responded, but some have not. Others said they could not locate the records. The Drug Enforcement Administration took more than a year to issue a response letter recently saying The Times’ request wasn’t specific enough. Larger agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, responding to the same request produced thousands of pages of records within weeks.