Group Hunting for State Dep’t Records Ordered to Revise Claim

This Aug. 10, 2006, file photo shows a sign that the State Department used as a backdrop in Washington. The Obama administration in its final year in office spent a record $36.2 million on legal costs defending its refusal to turn over federal records under the Freedom of Information Act, according to an Associated Press analysis of new U.S. data. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Declining to hold a conservative group to the writing standards of literary giants, a federal judge agreed to let the watchdog tinker with its as-yet unsuccessful government-records demand.

The American Center for Law and Justice brought the underlying case last year in Washington, complaining about the State Department’s delay in answering its demand about U.S. funding granted to several organizations that worked during the 2015 Israeli elections to unseat Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

After filing six 2016 requests under the Freedom of Information Act, the center says it took a lawsuit to prompt a response by the State Department.

Saying the State Department has a pattern of not responding to FOIA requests unless it is faced with a lawsuit, the center noted that the State Department inspector general made a similar conclusion in a 2016 audit.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg previously dismissed the claim without prejudice but granted a motion to amend on June 8.

“For most, including plaintiff American Center for Law and Justice, successful writing takes time and at least a redraft or two,” the 9-page opinion states, after opening with a reference to the single midnight-writing session it took for Franz Kafka to complete his short story “The Judgment.”

For the novel “On the Road,” the judge added, Jack Kerouac took three weeks.

The American Center for Law and Justice called the ruling a “crucial victory.”

“As a result of the court’s opinion permitting this claim to move forward, we are now in a position to not just obtain crucial documents about the Obama State Department’s improper funding of the Israeli Prime Minister’s political opponents, but also to put an end to the bureaucratic Department’s intentionally dilatory and misleading tactics in dealing with members of the public who exercise their legal right to obtain information about the operations and activities of the government,” the group said in a statement.

While the center casts its plight in partisan terms, the Society of Professional Journalists says its members are often forced to file lawsuits as well to gain traction with records requests.

Lynn Walsh, the group’s president, said this is most common at the state level, because state government agencies often lack an appeals process, but that federal requesters meet similar results.

“If you talk to people who use FOIA often they will say that they do feel that in order to get the information they want that there is that need sometimes unfortunately to file a lawsuit,” Walsh said in a phone interview.

Though Walsh called it too early to tell to how the Trump administration is stacking up, she noted a rise in these complaints over the last three years.

“I have heard from more reporters who are not able to get the records they request, or they’re forced to go through the records process when they just want simply answers to questions,” she said. “We have heard that that is happening more often.”

The State Department declined to comment on the pending litigation.

As summarized in the court’s ruling, the OIG’s audit of records requests at the State Department found that the department “has apparently ignored directives to, inter alia, increase staffing (and, in fact, decreased it), provide necessary FOIA training and guidance, ensure proper oversight mechanisms, and develop internal rules or criteria for conducting searches.”

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