Comptroller Averts Law Firm’s FOIA Complaint

     (CN) – A Treasury agency was right to withhold the independent-contractor records Williams & Connolly LLP requested under the Freedom of Information Act, a federal judge ruled.
     Williams & Connolly LLP had requested “generalized information” from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency nearly two years ago, relating to independence requirements as a third-party contractor.
     In particular, the law firm sought documents and records relating to the comptroller’s definition of “independence.”
     The comptroller denied the request two months later, citing FOIA Exemption 8, which applies to records related to financial institutions. Williams & Connolly sued last year after losing an administrative of appeal of the decision.
     U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton granted the office summary judgment Wednesday, simultaneously denying the firm’s motion, based on the Exemption 8 denial.
     “Because the comptroller is explicitly charged with regulating financial institutions, based on the plain language of the statute, Exemption 8 applies to the requested documents,” the 18-page opinion states.
     Williams & Connolly had argued that Exemption 8 did not apply to its FOIA request because “the information sought is about independent consultants, not banks,” according to the opinion.
     In rejecting that assertion, Walton credited the comptroller’s “position that withholding the requested documents furthers one of the exemption’s underlying purposes – it encourages banks to be candid and transparent with the comptroller regarding the independent third-party contractors each bank was required to hire.”
     Here the comptroller issued consent orders in April 2011 to review foreclosure practices of several banks, the court found.
     Walton also declined to have the comptroller produce a Vaughn index, named for the 1973 case Vaughn v. Rosen. “A Vaughn Index must: (1) identify each document withheld; (2) state the statutory exemption claimed; and (3) explain how disclosure would damage the interests protected by the claimed exemption,” according to court records.
     Such an index is futile here because the comptroller’s supplemental and alternative indices already describe the documents, claimed exemptions and rationale for withholding, the court found.
     The comptroller had alternatively invoked Exemptions 4 and 5 as justifications for its nondisclosures, but Judge Walton found that Exemption 8 sufficed.
     Williams & Connolly sued the SEC in 2009 related to another FOIA request, saying the commission was unreasonable in estimating the request to take six months and cost $67,000.
     The Office of the Comptroller is a U.S. Treasury Department agency and independent bureau, tasked with assuring fair access to financial services and fair treatment of customers by financial institutions. It may order banks to cease and desist “an unsafe or unsound practice,” according to the opinion.

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