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Ex-SEC chairman's records personal, not public

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  1. Freedom of Information

    News Media Update         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information    

Ex-SEC chairman’s records personal, not public

  • Federal district court ruled that the Securities and Exchange Commission can withhold meeting notes and personal information in the office of Chairman Harvey Pitts.

Aug. 10, 2004 — Meeting notes, calendars and phone records created by the office of former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Harvey Pitts are not agency records subject to the Freedom of Information Act, a federal district court in Washington, D.C., ruled July 28.

Judge Richard J. Leon of U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., said the SEC has the right to withhold notes, taken during a meeting between Pitt and several brokerage executives, under exemptions 5 and 8 of the FOI Act. Those exemptions cover internal agency memoranda and bank reports, respectively.

Leon also held that Pitt’s calendar and phone records can be withheld because they were only available to people working closely with Pitt; they were created for Pitt’s personal use and not to create an official record; and SEC employees are provided with “limited use of government office equipment for personal needs.”

The records, including e-mail messages, were first sought by Bloomberg News in April and May 2002. The SEC denied the requests for the calendar and phone records, and provided the New York-based company with a “Vaughn Index,” which details the reasons and exemptions which purportedly justify each denial.

Pitt resigned as chairman of the SEC in December 2002 following allegations that he withheld information surrounding the appointment of William Webster as chairman of the accounting oversight board. Webster, who later resigned himself, chaired the accounting committee at U.S. Technologies, which was sued by investors for accounting irregularities.

Bloomberg was joined in its suit by eight media companies, including CBS, Tribune Co. and Reuters.

The lone bright spot for the news media was that any e-mail messages not exempt from the FOI Act must be turned over to Bloomberg within 90 days, along with an explanation for why each requested document is withheld, according to Leon’s order.

Bloomberg spokeswoman Judith Czelusniak said the company has not yet determined whether it will appeal. Neither she nor Bloomberg counsel Jay Brown would comment further on the decision.

Similarly, an SEC spokesman said the agency does not like to comment on judicial opinions.

(Bloomberg v. Securities and Exchange Commission; Media Counsel: Jay Brown, Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz) CZ

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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