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Court finds White House violated Privacy Act in Willey incident

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Mar 30, 2000    

Court finds White House violated Privacy Act in Willey incident

  • A federal district court ruled that White House release of correspondence between President Clinton and Kathleen Willey to dispute claims she made on ’60 Minutes’ was improper.

Aides to President Clinton violated the Privacy Act when they retrieved letters written by former White House volunteer Kathleen Willey and released them to the news media after she accused the President of unwanted sexual advances in a 1998 interview on “60 Minutes,” federal District Court Judge Royce Lamberth ruled on March 29. In approving the measure, the President also violated the act, the judge said.

The White House released letters from Willey to the President in an attempt to show that Willey was friendly with the President even after his alleged sexual advances toward her, described in the interview, would have occurred.

White House attorneys claimed that the President was not subject to the Privacy Act, but Lamberth pointed to an earlier decision he wrote saying that when the White House retrieved the Willey letters, it already knew it was subject to the Privacy Act.

Lamberth said that to establish a Privacy Act claim a party must prove that an agency intentionally disclosed information from a record contained within a system of records resulting in an adverse impact. The White House did not deny retrieving the letters by Willey’s name and disclosing them and the judge said disclosure of the information had an adverse impact upon Willey.

Language in both the Privacy and Freedom of Information Acts states that they apply to the Executive Office of the President, but in actual practice they have rarely been held to cover that office. Courts have found that administration officials who advised the President were not subject to the FOI Act and FOI requesters trying to obtain information from the White House have been told routinely over the past several administrations that the FOI Act does not apply to the White House.

Willey was not a party to the lawsuit brought by the conservative Judicial Watch which has filed numerous lawsuits against the Clinton Administration. Instead, Judicial Watch in the case known as “Filegate” alleged that the administration has violated the Privacy Act repeatedly in retrieving and using information in government files about individuals.

Judicial Watch said that in “Filegate,” the White House illegally obtained the FBI files of former White House travel employees. In the lawsuit against the FBI in that case, it tried to question the White House about its retrieval and release of the Willey letters.

(Alexander v. FBI; counsel for Judicial Watch: Larry Klayman, Washington, D.C.)

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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