FOIA Suit: Public Citizen v. Lew

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE???? CONTACT: Michael Tankersley,202-588-7728
Dec. 4, 1997???????????????????????????????????????????????????? Lucinda Sikes, 202-588-7726
?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? Booth Gunter, 202-588-7741

Federal Agencies Violating Freedom of Information Act, Lawsuit Alleges

? WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Public Citizen today filed a federal lawsuit and a petition to enforce recent federal statutes designed to make it easier for the public to obtain access to the vast information resources of the federal government.
? "The Clinton administration has failed to live up to its commitment to make government information more open to the public, even in the face of statutory requirements that it do so," said Michael Tankersley, a Public Citizen Litigation Group attorney who filed the suit along with Public Citizen attorney Lucinda Sikes.
?? "Although many agencies are making tremendous use of computer technologies to give the public access to government information, several of the most important and prominent agencies -- agencies that hold critical information and should serve as role models for government information policy -- have failed to comply with basic requirements for making information accessible under the Freedom of Information Act," Tankersley said.
? The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, charges that seven major federal agencies have not complied with statutes requiring that they make available guides and indices to help the public obtain agency records.
? In 1995, Congress directed all federal agencies to compile a "current and complete inventory" of their information resources, including directories that could be used to establish an electronic service for locating major government information systems. The following year, in the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments, Congress directed agencies to make available a guide containing an index with a description of all major information and record locator systems and a handbook describing how to obtain information from these systems under the FOIA and other statutes.
? The Office of Management and Budget was supposed to take a leadership role in implementing these requirements. But many agencies, including the OMB, have ignored these mandates. 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.
? "This lawsuit will force these agencies to give the public the tools needed to navigate through the bureaucratic corridors of cyberspace," Sikes said.
? The Electronic FOIA is also the basis for a separate petition filed by Public Citizen and the Freedom of Information Clearinghouse to assist the public in getting immediate access to Department of Defense documents, such as contracts, that originate outside the agency.
? This petition stems from a FOIA requirement that agencies make agency opinions, orders, policy statements, staff manuals and other records "that have been or are likely to become" the subject of public requests for access immediately available for the asking in "Reading Rooms."
?? Effective November 1, agencies must also make these materials available on-line in "Electronic Reading Rooms" that allow the public to obtain the information instantly by modem.
? However, the DoD has adopted regulations that restrict Reading Room disclosures -- both electronically and in hard copy -- to records created by the Department. The Public Citizen petition urges the DoD to repeal this regulation because it violates the FOIA. Many DoD records that originate outside of the Department -- defense contracts, for example -- are the subject of multiple FOIA requests.
? Some agencies have taken the mandates at issue in the Public Citizen lawsuit and petition seriously. These agency finding aids as well as links to other agency Web sites are now 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.
? 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.