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Office of Management and Budget Rescinds Memorandum on Freedom of Information Act Challenged By Public Citizen

April 24, 1998

Office of Management and Budget Rescinds Memorandum on Freedom of Information Act Challenged By Public Citizen

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Office of Management and Budget has rescinded instructions on access to federal agency information that Public Citizen challenged in court because the instructions frustrated public access to the information resources held by the federal government.

In 1996, Congress amended the Freedom of Information Act to require each federal agency to make available to the public a guide containing an index of all the agency?s major information systems and descriptions of the agency?s information and record locator systems. In April 1997, however, the OMB severely undermined this law by instructing agencies that they could satisfy this requirement by relying on partial, selective inventories of agency records systems that were compiled under OMB guidance issued in 1994, before the 1996 law was passed.

Public Citizen and other public interest organizations requested that OMB rescind these instructions because they unlawfully encouraged agencies to limit the information available to the public on agency record holdings. Public Citizen also filed suit in federal court against OMB. The suit charges that the OMB?s April 1997 instructions should be struck down as unlawful and that OMB and other agencies have improperly failed to provide the public with the indices and descriptions of their record holdings required by statute.

Yesterday, OMB conceded part of the relief requested in the lawsuit by rescinding the April 1997 instructions challenged by Public Citizen. OMB issued new instructions stating that agencies must expand the indices that they provide to the public to include any of the agency?s major information and record locator systems.

“The federal government has vast resources of information that were compiled at taxpayer expense,” observed Michael Tankersley, a Public Citizen Litigation Group attorney who filed the suit. “The public has a right to complete information about the government?s major records holdings, and OMB?s new instructions are an important step in getting federal agencies to fulfill their obligation to provide citizens with information that the public can use to locate and request government records, whether in paper or digital formats.”

Public Citizen?s challenge to the failure of major federal agencies to provide complete indices of their record holdings remains pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The seven agencies named as defendants are the OMB; the Office of Administration in the Executive Office of the President; the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative; the Department of Education; the Department of Energy; the Department of Justice; and the Department of State.

Public Citizen is a non-profit consumer advocacy organization with extensive experience in FOIA issues. Since its founding in 1972, the group has regularly used FOIA to request records related to its advocacy efforts and has represented FOIA requesters in approximately 300 lawsuits challenging government secrecy.

The Freedom of Information Clearinghouse is a project of Ralph Nader’s Center for the Study of Responsive Law. It has provided technical and legal assistance since 1972 to individuals, public interest groups and the media in obtaining access to information from government agencies.

Links to Web sites containing information on agency record holdings are posted on Public Citizen’s Web site to assist members of the public in drafting requests for government records. To get access to the finding aids, computer users with Internet access can go to Public Citizen’s home page at www.citizen.org. Then, they should click on the Litigation Group page, then click on the Freedom of Information Clearinghouse.