Tea party scandal brews FOIA backlog at FEC

Election agency struggling to process deluge of requests

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Congress has recently inundated the Federal Election Commission with demands for information connected to the Internal Revenue Service tea party targeting scandal and the unrelated political activities of a former FEC employee.

The result: Dramatically delayed responses to Freedom of Information Act requests logged by members of the press and public who seek unpublicized information from the FEC — the federal government's election law enforcer and regulator.

"The agency has been receiving a higher than normal volume of FOIA requests recently, which is impacting our response times," FEC staffer Deborah Foresman wrote today in response to questions about the status of a Center for Public Integrity FOIA request filed on May 1 that seeks various agency emails.

The FEC on May 19 promised in writing to respond to the Center for Public Integrity's request by June 13 — saying it needed time to "appropriately examine a large quantity of separate and distinct potentially responsive records."

The FEC has yet to produce the records, and until today, the agency had not communicated about the request for nearly two months.

By law, the FEC has 20 business days to respond to FOIA requests. During its 2013 fiscal year, it took the FEC an average of 16.3 days to process "simple" FOIA requests, the agency stated in a recent report.

Asked what people or entities are responsible for the workload uptick resulting in FOIA request delays, FEC Vice Chairman Ann Ravel pointed to Capitol Hill.

"The FEC has received many requests and subpoenas from congressional committees," Ravel said. "Attorneys have been detailed to work on reviews of documents and emails."

Ravel added that the FEC — already strapped for funding and resources — has invested in new software to process "the large number of emails going back many years to be able to expedite the process."

FEC Chairman Lee Goodman and the FEC press office did not immediately return requests for comment.

Officials at the U.S. House's Committee on Ways and Means and Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, both of which are investigating the IRS' targeting of tea party and other conservative groups, also did not immediately return requests for comment.

Lois Lerner, the former IRS exempt organizations division director at the center of the House investigations, worked at the FEC from 1981 to the early 2000s. In late 2000, the FEC appointed Lerner acting general counsel. Lerner joined the IRS in 2001 and resigned in 2013.

Republicans on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform are also investigating the case of April Sands, a former FEC attorney accused of campaigning for President Barack Obama while on the job.

An FEC report indicates the agency "generally receives less than 100 FOIA requests per year" — for example, 87 during its 2013 fiscal year, 60 during its 2012 fiscal year. At the end of its 2013 fiscal year, the agency reported 12 "backlogged" requests.

Because of cost concerns and the relatively low number of requests, the FEC does not employ an online system to track FOIA requests it receives. Nevertheless, the agency says it "strives to provide requesters with detailed status update information as quickly as possible."

Lara Dieringer, program coordinator for the nonpartisan National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri, urged the FEC not prioritize congressional requests over those from the press or general public.

"FOIA is for the citizens," Dieringer said. "Freedom of information should hold no priority, except for the order in which requests come in."