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Agency reviewing Justice investigation must release records

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  1. Freedom of Information
Sep. 13, 2007  ·   A federal agency must turn over additional records related to an investigation into the death…

Sep. 13, 2007  ·   A federal agency must turn over additional records related to an investigation into the death of a federal prisoner who was allegedly murdered in mistaken retaliation for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, a federal appeals court ruled last week.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver (10th Cir.) held that the Integrity Committee, a subdivision of the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency that watches over other federal agencies, applied a Freedom of Information Act exemption too broadly in withholding investigation documents.

The case originated with the death of Kenneth Trentadue, a convicted bank robber whose body was found hanging in his jail cell within the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City on Aug. 21, 1995, according to court records. The victim’s brother, Jesse Trentadue, alleged that either prison staffers or other inmates had killed Kenneth Trentadue, believing the prisoner was a suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing case.

After investigations by the Department of Justice and then the department’s Office of the Inspector General both concluded Kenneth Trentadue’s death was the result of suicide, Jesse Trentadue, an attorney in Salt Lake City, pressed the Integrity Committee to review the investigation. Trentadue then attempted to obtain reports and other interagency documents connected to the committee’s review.

Tenth Circuit Judge Carlos F. Lucero held that the committee did not look closely enough to discern which parts of one of the primary documents, which features Inspector General Glen Fine’s written responses to Trentadue’s allegations, were “deliberative” as opposed to simply factual in nature. The appeals judge disagreed that the document’s deliberative portions, which FOIA allows to be withheld from disclosure, and its factual details were “inextricably intertwined,” as the U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City had decided.

“Whether a portion of a document is deliberative is an objective question, and it is the duty of courts to answer that question,” Lucero wrote. “The manner in which an author organizes her thoughts may make that duty more or less difficult, but the solution is not to simply abdicate and allow withholding en masse.”

While the district court reasoned that parsing through Fine’s responses line-by-line to redact deliberative responses, as FOIA allows, could ultimately frustrate future agency record authors worried about potential FOIA litigation, the appeals court said the lower court’s policy concerns were “misguided.”

After completing its in camera review of the documents sought by Trentadue, the appeals court suggested substantial, additional sections of the documents should be released following remand to the lower court.

The court also ruled that the committee could not justify withholding documents identifying prison employees through FOIA privacy exemptions when the employees’ names had already been revealed in other documents relating to the allegations that had previously been released to the public.

(Trentadue v. Integrity Committee)SA

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