- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Vincent C. Gray criticized his predecessor for running “one of the most opaque administrations” he had ever seen and singled out its failure to process requests for public records as he promised more transparency during his 2010 campaign for D.C. mayor.

But now the ACLU is taking Mr. Gray to task, accusing his administration of unprecedented delays in turning over data sought by the public through Freedom of Information Act requests.

The American Civil Liberties Union for the Nation’s Capital has asked the District’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability to investigate whether the city government is properly handling and responding to such requests after several of their own met with delays.

“In eight recent requests, only two were done on time. It’s a worse history than usual,” ACLU attorney Fritz Mulhauser said as he appealed to the board at its most recent meeting last week. “Agencies are pleading backlog and claiming our requests are too voluminous to handle.”

Mr. Gray, as chairman of the D.C. Council, battled with then-Attorney General Peter J. Nickles over the number of requests that were being denied outright and shot down Mr. Nickles’ suggestion that the city be given more time to process FOIA requests.

But the city’s timely responses are now at their lowest point yet under the administrations of either Mr. Gray or former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. D.C. reports show that in fiscal 2013 only 62 percent of FOIA requests were processed within the 15 business-day time frame required by law. In fiscal 2011, which includes the first several months Mr. Gray was in office, timely FOIA responses were received 72 percent of the time. The rate dropped to 63 percent the following year.

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The ACLU’s complaint comes as the city is trying to consolidate the process by which it accepts, catalogues and tracks FOIA requests through a new software program called FOIAXpress.

“It’s a work in progress, but we think we’ve made quite a bit of progress,” Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said. “I’m not aware of any slow downs.”

The administration will also be announcing new open-government initiatives in coming days, he said.

“We are working on making government more transparent,” Mr. Ribeiro said, adding he hopes the bulk of the FOIAXpress system will be up and running by the time Mr. Gray leaves office at the end of the year.

Mr. Gray announced in October the purchase of the FOIAXpress software, which is expected to automate FOIA requests submitted to all city agencies and allow the information to be posted on a centralized website. Employees only began using the software internally in June and the public does not yet have the ability to submit and track requests.

The ACLU speculates that part of the reason for the delay could be that employees are trying to re-enter pending FOIA requests into the system before processing them.

“It would be ironic if this effort for improved transparency has made things worse in the short-run as staff take time to get used to the new systems,” Mr. Mulhauser wrote in correspondence to the ethics board. “At least one agency head told the ACLU that she has countermanded orders that staff spent countless hours re-entering into FOIAXpress the requests earlier this year — an obvious source of delay for current requests.”

As a result of the ACLU’s request, the ethics board has ordered its subordinate agency, the Office of Open Government, to investigate, open government director Traci Hughes said.

“Hopefully, the Mayor’s Office and the agencies mentioned in Mr. Mulhauser’s letter will be forthcoming and candid regarding the reasons for the backlog, and address the complaint that there appears to be a shutdown of the FOIA process,” Ms. Hughes wrote in a statement about the investigation.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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