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Watchdog group wins FOIA fee waiver

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  1. Freedom of Information
A government watchdog group is entitled to a fee waiver in its pursuit of Department of Education records, a federal…

A government watchdog group is entitled to a fee waiver in its pursuit of Department of Education records, a federal court ruled on Friday.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed the request for records related to a government-sponsored reading program in March, arguing the documents would "shed light" on former Education Secretary’s Margaret Spellings’ involvement with the program while she served as a White House adviser. CREW also said the documents could provide information on what it has called Spellings’ "improper relationships with commercial publishers."

CREW sought a fee waiver for the records, saying their dissemination was in the public interest, but the Education Department repeatedly denied the waiver.  U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina sided with CREW Friday.

Urbina said that the Education Department "improperly denied"  fee waiver requests for the documents CREW requested. CREW attempted to illuminate Spellings’ ties with the information, Urbina said, which was particularly important because FOIA is meant to "encourage ‘open and accountable’" government.

Some media outlets had reported the relationship, Urbina said, but that didn’t mean releasing the additional information that CREW requested and planned to disseminate wasn’t in the public interest.

CREW filed the suit in May 2007 under the Freedom of Information Act.  The Education Department had denied the fee waiver on the grounds that CREW’s request was too broad and did not demonstrate how the documents would contribute to public understanding.

The Education Department now has to process CREW’s records request without charge.