Dec. 6, 2005
Federal Government Withholds Information About Nearly One Million Workers – Close to Half the Total Civilian Workforce
Withholding Violates Both Law and Longstanding Practice
No Explanation Provided for Secrecy
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The federal government is unlawfully withholding information it normally provides the public about approximately 900,000 of its civilian employees, including employees working for such agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to a suit filed yesterday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York.
The lawsuit, brought by the co-directors of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) against the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), charges that the agency violated the Freedom of Information Act by failing to provide requested information. Further, the agency didn’t even explain the grounds under which it is withholding information about employees working in more than 250 federal agencies.
The government first began providing the American people detailed information about all its employees in a register published almost 200 years ago. The first name in the first register, authorized by Congress in 1816, was President James Madison.
The current massive and unexplained withholding of personnel information came after a routine request made by TRAC under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in October 2004 for the names and work stations of most civilian employees working for the government in the second quarter of 2004. This information, which had been regularly provided to TRAC for many years, is an essential component of a university-based project that since 1989 has been providing the American people, reporters, public interest groups and others with comprehensive information about the operations of the federal government. In this case, however, after a lengthy delay, the government withheld information about 40 percent of its civilian employees.
“Secret governors are incompatible with a free government,” said David Burnham and Susan Long, co-directors of TRAC, in a February 2 letter to OPM. “Basic information about the employees who carry out the day-to-day actions of government is critical for meaningful public oversight.”
Names of government employees and information about their worksites are frequently used by reporters and government watchdog groups to ferret out fraud, waste and other problems. For instance, the Union of Concerned Scientists and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility recently used names from TRAC’s database to conduct a survey of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees that found many of the scientists believed political intervention in their research was pervasive.
Similarly, a Rhode Island reporter some years ago compared a list of bus drivers in Providence against court records to find out which drivers had been convicted of drunk driving. Recently, reporters covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina needed employee names and their worksites to learn which FEMA officials were assigned to Louisiana and Mississippi.
In response to the October 2004 records request, OPM told TRAC it was reviewing its policy on disclosure of information about employees. Silence ensued. On Feb. 2, TRAC submitted a records request for documents relating to the policy review. In a Feb. 3 e-mail, OPM responded that TRAC’s outstanding FOIA requests were being processed and would be fulfilled according to a “newly implemented data release policy.” The next day, TRAC asked for a copy of that policy but still hasn’t received it. Also on Feb. 4, TRAC submitted a records request for additional quarterly personnel files.
Finally, on April 15, OPM released some of the requested information but excluded all information about civilian employees of the Department of Defense and the names and work stations of employees with about 250 different agencies. OPM also has not yet provided information about the review that it said led to its decision to reverse the longstanding policy of releasing this personnel information.
Adina Rosenbaum, the Public Citizen attorney who is representing Burnham and Long, said, “Citizens have a right to know who is working for the government. The fact that the government is refusing to release this data and refusing to tell us why is untenable.”
To read a copy of the lawsuit, click here.