Smithsonian operating with new FOIA-like policy

Corinna Zarek | Freedom of Information | Analysis | November 17, 2008

A FOIA-like policy for the Smithsonian Institution -- implementing many components of the open records law while allowing the quasi-governmental agency to withhold more of its private funding data -- is already under operation, Regent Shirley Ann Jackson said at today's first public meeting of the Smithsonian Board of Regents.

The policy, modeled after the Freedom of Information Act, will undergo "one more round of review," she said, but the board has moved to operate with the policy in the interim.

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, who has served as a regent since 2001, said the Senate Judiciary Committee has been working with the federal trust -- declared exempt from FOIA in the mid 1990s -- to make "major changes."

"This will be a full FOIA that reflects the unique public and private nature" of the Smithsonian, he said. "We will make it as open as possible."

The Smithsonian has been under fire for its secrecy practices, including asserting privacy rights for animals at the National Zoo as well as questionable use of about $2 million in institution funds by the former secretary -- stories both reported by The Washington Post.

In July, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania introduced legislation that would remove the Smithsonian's FOIA exemption entirely. Smithsonian Secretary Wayne G. Clough has favored keeping the educational group separate from FOIA and his staff has worked with open government advocates, including the Reporters Committee, to draft the policy the regents plan to adopt.