- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2018

The State Department was sued Wednesday for withholding documents detailing the process that preceded its publication of an article touting President Trump’s privately-owned Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida.

Benjamin Wittes, a co-founder of the Lawfare Blog legal website and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, filed the suit in D.C. federal court after the State Department failed to respond in time to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for records pertaining to the publication of the article, “Mar-a-Lago: The winter White House,” and its use by multiple agency websites and social media accounts last spring, according to his six-page complaint.

Published in April by ShareAmerica, a website operated by the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs, the article promoted Mr. Trump’s for-profit club prior to being taken offline amid subsequent backlash brought on by critics who said it acted as an advertisement for a business personally owned by the president. In the interim, the article was linked to by several social media accounts operated by the State Department accounts, including the Facebook pages for the U.S. embassies in the U.K. and Albania.

Mr. Wittes, 48, filed a FOIA request seeking documents related to the Mar-a-Lago article on May 16. The State Department acknowledged receiving the request shortly afterwards but has not said whether it will comply, despite having only 20 business days to reply, according to his lawsuit.

“Department of State’s failure to respond for nine months has far exceeded the statutory deadline,” attorney Robert Friedman wrote on behalf of Mr. Wittes.

Stonewalled by the State Department, the lawsuit asks a federal judge to compel the production of documents specifically relating to the decision-making process behind using the State Department websites to promote Mar-a-Lago; communications between the State Department and third-parties about how to publicize Mar-a-Lago; documents concerning the removal of articles related to Mar-a-Lago; documents related to requests for photographs of Mar-a-Lago; and documents related to the State’s Department use of social media to publicize information about the club.

The State Department does not comment on ongoing litigation, an official told The Washington Times.

Mar-a-Lag was built during the 1920s by socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post as an oceanside, members-only resort. Mr. Trump purchased it in 1985, and he has traveled there frequently since his inauguration in January 2017 — the same month the club doubled its membership initiation fee from $100,000 to $200,000.

“President Trump currently has a financial interest in the Mar-a-Lago Club—as he did at the time Defendant Department of State published the article — which is operated as a for-profit entity,” Mr. Friedman wrote. “President Trump’s decision to refuse to divest himself of his business interests, including his financial interest in Mar-a-Lago, has been the subject of public interest and raised questions regarding possible conflicts of interest.”

“Mr. Wittes filed his request for records pertaining to Mar-a-Lago in connection with his work for Lawfare and will use any produced records to inform the public’s understanding of the government’s operations and activities, not for any commercial use,” Mr. Friedman wrote in the complaint.

The State Department previously released hundreds of pages in November in response to a similar FOIA request field by the American Oversight watchdog group, but those records neither included any communications with the office of the secretary of state nor explained why the article was selected to be written, the organization said previously.

“The intention of the article was to inform the public about where the President has been hosting world leaders,” State’s Bureau of International Information Programs explained after purging the article from its website. “We regret any misperception and have removed the post.”

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