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Members of House hear testimony about FOIA progress

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  1. Freedom of Information
Journalists, government representatives and Freedom of Information Act experts testified before members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government…

Journalists, government representatives and Freedom of Information Act experts testified before members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Thursday about FOIA compliance and reform.

The hearing, which was chaired Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay, D-Mo., was the latest Sunshine Week event that highlighted the disparity that still exists between the transparency the government believes it has achieved and the progress public records requesters say is still needed.

Members of the first panel included Miriam Nisbet, the director of the newly established Office of Government Information Services, and Melanie Pustay of the Office of Information Policy. Both testified about the progress their offices had made in fulfilling President Obama’s Open Government Directive, which told federal agencies to increase transparency.

The second panel, which included academic experts and transparency advocates who routinely file FOIA requests, was less optimistic. Tom Fitton, the president of watchdog group Judicial Watch, which has 300 pending FOIA requests and 20 ongoing public records lawsuits in federal courts, said he had seen little change.

"The Obama administration continues to fight us tooth and nail in court," Fitton testified. "The Obama administration’s approach to FOIA is exactly the same as the Bush administration’s."

Sarah Cohen, a Duke University professor and former investigative journalist at The Washington Post, said there had been some improvement in the administration’s overall transparency over the past year but the FOIA process itself remained largely unchanged.

"Many of the new initiatives and policies have been geared at two prongs of the administration’s transparency agenda: collaborative and responsive government," Cohen testified. "The third prong – transparency for the purpose of government accountability – has changed little, based on my own experience and reports from journalists and others who work with public records."

Members of the second panel detailed lengthy delays in obtaining requested records and suggested harsher penalties levied for noncompliance. David Sobel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, another frequent plaintiff in FOIA lawsuits, said there need to be incentives for agencies to release more information instead of penalties for releasing too little.

"I am not unsympathetic to the burden that many agency employees encounter when they attempt to be diligent in responding to FOIA requests in a forthcoming and timely fashion," Sobel told the panel. "Nonetheless, as a requester, it is frustrating to know that the statutory deadline of twenty working days for response to a request has become one of the longest running jokes within the federal government."

Earlier in the week, a bipartisan Senate bill was introduced that would expedite the FOIA process.