Accepting the Robert Vaughn FOIA Legend Award Monday, Sen. Patrick Leahy reaffirmed his commitment to government transparency through the Freedom of Information Act, asserting that the public and its leaders can and must do more to promote accountability.
The Democrat from Vermont gave the keynote speech at Freedom of Information Day at American University’s Washington College of Law. The award is named in honor of a professor at the school whose litigation has required government agencies denying FOIA requests to give a description of the information being withheld.
"Over four decades I know that FOIA used right has been an indispensable tool to shed light on government policy and support the public’s right to know," Leahy said. "Nobody sends a press release when they screw up. That’s when you need FOIA."
Leahy also announced the introduction of a new bill co-sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who has consistently supported FOIA reform along with Leahy. The OPEN FOIA Act would require Congress to expressly state when it passes a new statutory exemption to FOIA.
"They must state their intention explicitly with real specific language," he said. "A lot of exemptions wouldn’t be there today if that was required."
He added that there "seem to be exemptions for everything" and that he is asking the Justice Department to review pending cases to make sure that when a statutory exemption to FOIA is asserted, it actually exists.
Leahy also reflected on FOIA and the lack of transparency and accountability in the last presidential administration.
"Some have said to turn the page; I’d like us to read the page we’re on so it doesn’t happen again." He added that he "urged Obama to make a clear commitment to FOIA" and that it wasn’t a "hard sell" because he supported every effort to reform the law while in Congress himself.
Freedom of Information Day is celebrated on March 16, which is James Madison’s birthday. Since 2005, it has fallen during Sunshine Week — a weeklong effort promoting freedom of information and open government issues.