- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A conservative legal group sued the EPA on Tuesday, arguing that the agency engages in political discrimination when deciding which open-records requests it will fulfill.

The lawsuit comes after congressional Republicans found the Environmental Protection Agency regularly grants liberal groups a break on open-records fees, but denies conservative groups the same consideration.

EPA officials have denied the charge of favoritism, but have requested their inspector general conduct an audit of their fee waivers to determine if any changes are needed.

SEE ALSO: EDITORIAL: When smoke gets in the EPA’s eyes

The lawsuit stems from a claim by researcher Chris Horner and the Energy & Environment Legal Institute that EPA has stonewalled their requests for documents on a number of agency actions, and has demanded a $2,000 fee before they will process the documents requested.

Even despite their own financial demand, EPA turned over several hundred pages of documents Monday — though Mr. Horner said the documents aren’t responsive to the request, and instead include material that was already publicly available online.

“This is the latest in a pattern of behavior by EPA clearly parallel to the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups,” Mr. Horner said in accusing the agency of political favoritism. “Both impose financial hurdles in the way of groups they disapprove of, draining resources from those they see as threats and impeding the groups from pursuing their mission.”

Under the Freedom of Information Act, agencies are required to respond to valid records requests within a set period of time. They can ask for fees when searching and if copying costs are extraordinary, but groups can also ask for those fees to be waived — and agencies often comply.

But according to a report from Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, EPA granted fee waivers in 92 percent of requests from environmental groups, though the agency approved just 27 percent of fee waiver requests from conservative think tanks.

In a statement, EPA said it couldn’t talk about the lawsuit because it is ongoing. But agency officials said they don’t prioritize open-records requests based on political leanings.

EPA makes FOIA waiver determinations based on legal requirements that are consistently applied to all fee waiver requests, not on the identity of the requester,” the agency said in its statement.

EPA has also asked its inspector general to look at the criteria to make sure it “remains fair and transparent.” The inspector general’s office said it expects to complete the report in late summer.

Mr. Horner filed his lawsuit in federal district court in Washington, D.C.

He is demanding EPA turn over all of the records requested, and that it drop its demand for thousands of dollars in fees.

Mr. Horner said under the law, if EPA has missed any of its deadlines, it is no longer entitled to ask for fees. He said because EPA didn’t reply by Dec. 20, it waived its right to payment.

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