- 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.

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.

“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.

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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.”

But the records can pay off, he said.

“If you’re about to run against an incumbent senator or congressman in an agricultural state, you might want to see what correspondence they’re sending to [the Agriculture Department] to advocate for their constituency. You may not find much, or you may find letters that match up neatly with their list of donors,” he said.

Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College and author of “The Art of Political Warfare,” said it’s not unusual for campaign operatives to file request for records through outsiders.

“People in political committees have many friends who can obtain information and pass it along,” he said. “If you’re running, you want to get every document you can with your opponent’s name on it, and FOIA is a way to do that.”

In turn, information can be pushed on as “tips” to journalists covering campaigns.

In other cases, information is used more discreetly — quietly delivered through an intermediary as a friendly warning not to enter a race.

The EPA has come under fire from Republicans for playing favorites with open-records requests. Congressional Republicans last year said a review of records showed the EPA gave environmental groups a break on fees associated with FOIA requests but refused to waive fees for conservative think tanks.

Despite being one of only a handful of agencies to post its FOIA responses online, the agency also came under criticism from the Society of Environmental Journalists this week over its transparency practices.

The society, in an op-ed, said the EPA was one of the most open agencies in government during the 1980s and 1990s but became “incredibly secretive, especially under the Obama administration.”

“When the agency does respond, a favorite tactic is to wait until just before or even after a reporter’s deadline and then mail a short written statement that does not answer the questions,” the journalists’ piece stated.

EPA officials defended the agency’s handling of media requests.

“While the op-ed contains several inaccuracies, timely response remains a priority for EPA,” Ms. Purchia said. “EPA works daily to ensure that any information we share with the public is timely, accurate, and reflects all of the necessary facts.”

Open-records requests have received extra scrutiny across the Obama administration because of the president’s pledges of openness.

The Washington-based watchdog group Cause of Action issued a report Tuesday questioning whether political appointees are meddling in the FOIA process.

The report criticized a memo from former White House Counsel Greg Craig, which instructed agencies to inform the White House about requests involving “White House equities.”

Dan Epstein, executive director of Cause of Action, said the memo could hinder production of documents to the public as well as congressional oversight committees.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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