Court denies access to Foster records on privacy grounds
VIRGINIA–A financial newsletter cannot obtain the psychiatrists’ names and telephone numbers carried by the late deputy White House counsel Vince Foster Jr, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) ruled in mid-June.
Foster died in July 1993 and his death was ruled a suicide after investigation by the Office of Independent Counsel. Investigators found a list of psychiatrists and their telephone numbers in his wallet.
Affirming a lower court decision, the appeals panel said that the psychiatrists had protectable personal privacy interests in their names and telephone numbers even when law enforcement officers had determined that Foster had made no contact with them and even though the doctors had made public their names, telephone numbers and the fact that they practice psychiatry.
Jonathan Wichlacz, a paralegal in a Virginia firm representing the newsletter Strategic Investments, filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the records concerning the psychiatrists in November 1995 with the Department of the Interior and with the FBI, agencies that had initially investigated Foster’s death. He was denied the names and telephone numbers under portions of the FOI Act’s law enforcement exemption protecting against interference with law enforcement proceedings and against intrusion into personal privacy.
Wichlacz sued for the records and lost in federal District Court in Alexandria. He had argued that once Foster’s death was ruled a suicide, law enforcement proceedings were over and disclosure of information pertaining to them no longer posed a threat. He also argued that the psychiatrists could not suffer any stigma from the revelation that they were on a list of names held by Foster.
He reiterated those arguments on appeal, but the panel agreed with the District Court that disclosure “could disturb” the investigation of Foster’s death and that release of the names would subject psychiatrists who neither knew nor treated Foster to “the inevitable public scrutiny, both of their professional and personal lives.” (Wichlacz v. Department of Interior; Counsel: Matthew Turner, Baltimore)