Republicans ask watchdogs to review FOIA request process

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Inspectors general at the Energy Department and Social Security Administration say their review of FOIA procedures at the request of senior Republican lawmakers showed no signs of meddling by political appointees.

Two dozen other agency and department watchdogs have yet to respond to a letter from Rep. Darrell Issa of California and Sen. Grassley of Iowa asking for a quick check of FOIA procedures. The two Republicans sent the letters about a month ago after media reports that the Homeland Security Department subjected FOIA requests from lawmakers, journalists and activist groups to a new “political review” process. Such requests were routed to the department’s political appointees for handling, and in the case of Congressional requests, department employees were told to specify the political party of the lawmaker, the letter said.

The Associated Press reported that the Homeland Security Department stopped the practice after an AP investigation obtained emails showing how political appointees slowed the FOIA process and sought information about the individuals and organizations requesting access to records. Information requested under the FOIA law is supposed to be handled by career staff and released, unless it would harm national security, invade personal privacy, or expose confidential government decisions.

Issa and Grassley, the ranking Republicans on the House Oversight Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, respectively, asked all federal inspectors general to review their FOIA request process for any signs of politicization. “There’s a clear public interest in finding out if what happened at Homeland Security is also taking place in other federal agencies,” Issa said the day the letters were sent out.

Some watchdogs have asked for more time and the committee will wait for their findings before releasing all the information, said Frederick Hill, a spokesman for the House panel. He declined to say how many inspectors general have responded privately or how much extra time the committee is giving others.

So far, only the watchdogs at the Social Security Administration and the Energy Department have released their responses to the Republican lawmakers. Both found that FOIA requests were handled only by career federal employees, not political appointees.

“We determined that SSA political appointees were sometimes made aware of or reviewed information requests; however, we found no evidence of FOIA information requests being detoured, unusually scrutinized, delayed, or hindered by SSA political appointees,” the Social Security Administration inspector general said.

The FOIA audits have produced some unexpected benefits: pinpointing inefficiencies surrounding the request process.

The Energy Department watchdog found that it should streamline FOIA requests, formalize a policy for handling requests, and consistently price materials supplied by the department. Last year, DOE collected barely $14,000 in FOIA fees from requesters while running up more than $4.7 million in costs, which the watchdog described as “an exceptionally low rate” of cost recovery.

Another finding: DOE last year took an average 83 days to fulfill FOIA requests – way above the 20-day deadline set by law – in part because the department has not fully adopted electronic processing of requests, the inspector general said.

ABOUT THE DATA:

What: Reports by 29 federal government inspectors general who are reviewing FOIA procedures for any politicization.

Where: Requested by Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.

Availability: So far only available if the inspector general released a copy.

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