Ever since his first full day in office, Obama ordered federal officials to “usher in a new era of open government” and “act promptly” to make information public. But 19 of those 20 agencies disobeyed the law requiring the disclosure of public information: The cost of travel by top officials. In all, just eight of the 57 federal agencies met Bloomberg’s request for those documents within the 20-day window required by the Act.
“When it comes to implementation of Obama’s wonderful transparency policy goals, especially FOIA policy in particular, there has been far more ‘talk the talk’ rather than ‘walk the walk,’” said Daniel Metcalfe, director of the Department of Justice’s office monitoring the government’s compliance with FOIA requests from 1981 to 2007.
This survey by Bloomberg was designed in part to gauge the timeliness of responses, which Attorney General Eric Holder called “an essential component of transparency” in a March 2009 memo. About half of the 57 agencies eventually disclosed the out-of-town travel expenses generated by their top official by Sept. 14, most of them well past the legal deadline.
In June Bloomberg reporters filed FOIA requests for fiscal year 2011 taxpayer-supported travel for Cabinet secretaries and top officials of major departments. Justice Department official Melanie Ann Pustay said in an interview that disclosure of those records is in the public interest.
Even agency heads who publicly announce their events — including Holder, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius — didn’t provide the costs of their out-of-town trips more than three months after the initial request.
“It’s ironic that the demands in the presidential campaign for Mitt Romney’s tax returns are unrelenting, but when it comes time to release the schedules for senior appointees there’s the same denial of access,” said Paul Light, a New York University professor who studies the federal bureaucracy.
“Over the past four years, federal agencies have gone to great efforts to make government more transparent and more accessible than ever, to provide people with information that they can use in their daily lives,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, who noted that Obama received an award for his commitment to open government. The March 2011 presentation of that award was closed to the press.
Then a request made in June for the travel records of Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, will remain unfulfilled for more than a year, according to a federal official involved in the case. The travel costs of government officials have received greater scrutiny since a report by the General Services Administration’s inspector general on April 2 revealed that a 2010 Las Vegas junket — featuring a mind reader and a clown — cost taxpayers more than $823,000. Since then, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson has resigned and the IG has referred the matter to the Department of Justice.
And the records that Bloomberg obtained showed that the GSA almost tripled its expenditures for conferences from 2005 to 2010. Taxpayers paid $27.8 million for more than 200 overnight gatherings attended by at least 50 GSA employees over the five-year period, according to the records.
Under Obama, federal agencies also have stepped up the use of exemptions to block the release of information. More proof of how Obama has lied.
And during the first year alone, of the Administration, cabinet agencies employed exemptions 466,402 times, a 50 percent jump from the last year of the presidency of George W. Bush. While exemption citations have since been reduced by 21 percent from that high, they still are above the level seen during the Bush administration.
Most of the exemptions came from the Department of Homeland Security, which gets the most requests.
Open government advocates note that Obama’s transparency pledge is undermined by a federal bureaucracy that often cites staff shortages and compliance costs to delay the release of information.
“I don’t think the administration has been very good at all on open-government issues,” said Katherine Meyer, a Washington attorney who has been filing open records requests since the late 1970s. “The Obama administration is as bad as any of them, and to some extent worse.”
For example, the Center for Auto Safety was told by Treasury FOIA officials that its request for records relating to the U.S. auto bailout would cost $38,000. Meyer successfully argued the fees should be waived because the request was in the public interest.
President Lyndon B Johnson in 1966 signed the Freedom of Information Act, which is designed to open up the process of government to citizens. Individuals have the right to file requests, and the law mandates that the department answer the query within 20 working days, ask for a 10-day extension, or offer a timetable for the release of the information.
And FOIA has been used a lot, since enacted.
“It’s the smoking gun that often holds government accountable for its misdeeds,” said Kevin Goldberg, a First Amendment attorney at Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth Plc in Arlington, Virginia, who also serves as legal counsel for the American Society of News Editors.
The Bloomberg FOIA filing also asked each department to identify trips, lodging and meals provided by non-federal sources. All told, 30 of the 57 agencies contacted replied with those travel records by Sept. 14.
The records of Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, Labor Hilda Solis, former Secretary of Commerce and Acting Secretary Gary Locke and Rebecca Blank, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Jacob Lew, the former director of the Office and Management and Budget who is now White House Chief of Staff, were released to Bloomberg News under the request, though those agencies did not meet the 20-day deadline.
Eric Newton, senior adviser at the Knight Foundation, a Miami-based group that promotes citizen engagement, said agencies have no excuse not to rapidly disclose travel costs.
The DOJ is one of the worse in not releasing information. It has yet to release the travel details of top officials at three of its affiliated agencies: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
None of the nine exemptions under the FOIA — which protect national security, personal information or corporate trade secrets, for example — allow taxpayer supported travel expenses to remain hidden from view.
Now it has been suggested that these records may include information, such as private mobile-phone numbers or information related to security, that is exempted from disclosure, which could be causing the delays. But on the other hand, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the chief regulator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, provided the travel expense records for Acting Director Edward DeMarco’s six trips out of town within 15 days of the filing.
The White House says it has released more than 2.5 million records since Obama took office. Recovery.gov allows citizens to track stimulus spending by state. The administration also has for the first time posted the names of White House visitors, though not a full list of who has attended meetings.
Other examples of what has been released include – the number of weapons in the nation’s nuclear arsenal, report cards for veterans’ hospitals, and employer-specific workplace safety records kept by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The total number of FOIA requests increased, with 631,424 processed last year, compared with 600,849 in 2010.
The government’s website dedicated to monitoring its response to filings, FOIA. gov, shows the number of backlogged requests grew 20 percent to 83,490 filings from 2010 to 2011.
The administration acknowledged systemic issues with the FOIA process when the Office of Management and Budget issued guidelines Aug. 24 to all federal agencies on how to streamline government information. The memo called for all government information to be stored in an electronic format by December 2019 — almost three years after the end of a potential second Obama term.