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House hearing tackles FOIA reform

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Feb. 16, 2007…

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Feb. 16, 2007

House hearing tackles FOIA reform

  • Congress making early moves toward open government legislation.

Feb. 16, 2007  ·   With the House under new leadership, congressional leaders renewed their campaign to strengthen the federal Freedom of Information Act with a hearing this week in Washington to learn where the FOIA process is failing and what legislative remedies maybe necessary to improve it.

Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), chairman of the new House Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and National Archives, said that while one of the cornerstones of democracy is freedom of information, the country has “witnessed a recent decline in the accessibility and transparency of government information.”

Last year, a different House subcommittee approved the OPEN Government Act of 2005, aimed at reducing the backlog of pending records requests and improving FOIA reporting to Congress. Clay called the prior bill “an excellent starting point for legislation in this Congress.”

Linda Koontz, director of information management with the Government Accountability Office, testified that many federal agencies could not keep pace with the overall volume of FOIA requests received each year. She also confirmed a growing backlog, with the number of pending records requests carried over from year to year steadily increasing.

Clark Hoyt, former Knight Ridder Washington editor, testified on behalf of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups of which The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is a member.

Hoyt recounted the difficulties newspaper reporter Chris Adams had using FOIA for a series of stories he wrote on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the agency’s wrongful denials of veterans’ benefits. After more than a year of FOIA denials and legal wrangling, the VA turned over all the requested records but at a cost of more than $100,000 in attorney fees, Hoyt said.

But Hoyt said those attorney fees could not be recovered because of the current state of the law. “Because the VA surrendered the [information] before our suit went to trial, we were prevented from recovering legal fees,” Hoyt said.

Hoyt urged Congress to “make it clear that plaintiffs forced to sue to get public records are entitled to legal fees, even though the defendant agency throws in the towel before a court decision.” He also suggested a better tracking system for requests and the possibility of a federal ombudsman to resolve cases short of litigation.

Caroline Fredrickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office, recommended that Congress carefully scrutinize national security claims by executive agencies as a method of preventing disclosure of public documents. She also said that more funding was necessary to decrease the backlog of requests and automatic penalties were needed against agencies violating FOIA deadlines.

In one of the most spirited moments of the hearing, ranking member of the subcommittee Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) chastised Frederickson for what Turner described as the “underlying negativity” of some advocacy groups in their attacks on the Bush administration’s performance under FOIA. Turner said this criticism was “diminishing the FOIA pursuit.”


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