Anonymous letters may be withheld from pensioner accused of fraud
NEW YORK–Anonymous letters to a federal agency falsely accusing a social security recipient of defrauding the government can be withheld under the Freedom of Information exemption protecting “confidential sources,” the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York ruled in mid-November.
The decision affirmed the results of a mid-January ruling by the federal District Court in Manhattan. The lower court had found the records could also be withheld because disclosure would intrude upon the personal privacy of the anonymous letter writer, but the appeals panel did not rule on the applicability of the privacy exemption.
In a series of letters to state agencies and to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Blanch Ortiz, a tenant in a rent-controlled apartment, was accused of lying about her age and identity for social security, pension and rent benefits.
Each agency investigated her and cleared her of any wrong-doing. In court documents Ortiz said that she strongly suspected that her landlord had sent the letters in an effort to get her out of her apartment so that he could raise the rent.
Ortiz filed freedom of information requests under the New York and federal laws for the letters. The state agencies complied with her request but the federal agency relied on the statutory exemptions for personal privacy and law enforcement records to withhold the records. (Ortiz v. HHS; Ortiz’s Counsel: Jonathan Weiss, New York City)