FOIA suits over bailout documents mount up

Hannah Bergman | Freedom of Information | Feature | March 30, 2009

Realizing litigation may be the best option to receive records related to the financial industry bailout, yet another news organization lawsuit has joined the FOIA lawsuit parade.

The New York Times filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act on March 23 seeking documents from the Federal Reserve Board and the Treasury Department. The newspaper’s various FOIA requests have gone unfilled, according to the complaint.

The Times is asking for the calendars of Fed chairman Ben Bernanke and former Treasury secretary Henry Paulson. Also sought are documents related to the Fed’s decision to expand its various lending programs; communications between Paulson, now Treasury secretary Timothy Giethner and other officials related to the Troubled Asset Relief Program bailing out the bank; and documents relating to Fed’s position on the bailout legislation.

The case is pending before Judge Naomi Buchwald in the U.S. District Court in New York City.

In another bailout-related FOIA case, Fox News reported Friday it had received some documents from the Treasury Department after a judge in the case ordered Treasury to process Fox’s request.

In its story, Fox said, “Citing attorney-client privilege, the government held back a lot. Nevertheless, a lot of good stuff remained.”

“Judging from the senders and recipients on the emails, virtually all the details of the bailout were worked out among a handful of lawyers from the Treasury, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and the private law firms of Davis Polk & Wardwell and Sullivan & Cromwell in New York,” Fox reported.

“Because so many lawyers were involved, nearly all of the 10,096 pages of documents turned over by the Treasury have at least one piece of information redacted,” Fox went on.

Yet, despite that release and the Obama administration's promises for a more transparent government, considering the FOIA backlogs at Treasury it seems the lawsuits may prove to be the most efficient way to get bailout documents released. 

Fox also has a pending FOIA suit against the Federal Reserve, as does Bloomberg News. Both of those cases involve bailout documents, too. However, the cases are hampered by conflict over the applicability of FOIA to the Federal Reserve system banks, where many of the documents are housed.