By Patrick Llewelyn
Aggressive use of federal public records law has been crucial to Public Citizen’s efforts to holding the Trump administration accountable over the past three years. This work requires diligence, patience and often lots of time, but it enables us to make the government more transparent and accountable to the people.
To help increase transparency and citizen participation in the democratic process, Congress enacted the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966. FOIA enables Americans to learn what their government is up to and hold it responsible for its actions. FOIA does that by giving members of the public an enforceable right to access government records, subject to nine narrow exemptions.
On Jan. 6, 2017, Public Citizen submitted a FOIA request to the Secret Service for, among other things, records related to the costs incurred by the Secret Service for President Donald Trump’s continued use of his home in New York and his other residences in the United States.
The Secret Service sent a brief acknowledgment shortly after we sent in the request, after which we heard nothing for more than seven months. Then, on Sept. 18, 2017, the agency claimed that it could not process the request because it was “too broad in scope” and did not “specifically identify the records” Public Citizen was seeking. We promptly responded, explaining our request plainly complied with FOIA’s requirement that we “reasonably” describe the records.
More than a year later, on Oct. 25, 2018, the Secret Service sent Public Citizen a letter that first apologized for the “inconvenience” of the agency’s 18-month delay in processing the FOIA request, and then requested that Public Citizen confirm it was “still interested” in the FOIA request before the agency continued its “review process.”
The letter further warned that, if Public Citizen did not respond, the agency would close the FOIA request. Public Citizen responded by both phone and letter, explaining that we remained interested in the request and the agency should process the request.
On Feb. 26, 2019, the Secret Service denied the request, stating that it had identified responsive material but was withholding all material in full under FOIA exemptions that protect individuals from an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” and certain law enforcement records where disclosure risks “circumvention of the law.”
On April 5, 2019, Public Citizen administratively appealed the denial, explaining that the agency had improperly relied on those exemptions and conducted an inadequate search.
On May 10, 2019, the Secret Service granted Public Citizen’s appeal and stated a further search would be conducted. On Sept. 30, 2019, it granted our FOIA request in part, producing responsive records for the first time.
However, the agency produced only one eight-page report titled “Expenditures Pursuant to the Presidential Protection Assistance Act of 1976” covering the time period of April 2018 through September 2018. On Nov. 7, 2019, Public Citizen submitted a second administrative appeal, challenging the adequacy of the agency’s search and any continued withholdings under the previously cited exemptions.
Finally, on Feb. 12, 2020—more than three years after Public Citizen submitted its FOIA request—the Secret Service granted Public Citizen’s administrative appeal and produced thousands of pages of receipts and other documents reflecting the agency’s travel expenses for trips to President Trump’s residences in the United States. The agency produced the records in hard copy, rather than electronically as Public Citizen had requested, resulting in a UPS delivery to Public Citizen’s office of two cardboard boxes weighing 30 pounds each.
Among the newly discovered information in the records, featured in the Washington Post, were details about thousands of dollars expended by the Secret Service at Trump-owned properties, including for rentals at those properties when the president was not there.
As the records demonstrate, FOIA remains a vital tool to learning what our government is up to. In this case, thanks to FOIA, we uncovered significant information about Secret Service expenditures for traveling to President Trump’s multiple residences. Agencies often fail to comply with FOIA’s statutory deadlines, which envision the process of requesting and receiving records taking a few weeks, not a few years. But persistence in seeking the records through the administrative process or litigation often can yield valuable information that is otherwise unavailable to the public.