Journo, Feds End 25-Year Battle Over Reagan Files

     (CN) – A journalist who won access to documents on President Ronald Reagan’s supposed work as an FBI informant has settled with federal agencies, a federal judge said.
     California resident Seth Rosenfeld filed a trio of suits against the Justice Department and the FBI in 1990, after they denied his Freedom of Information Act requests for “any and all” FBI records pertaining to the University of California.
     Rosenfeld sued the agencies again in 1997 for records concerning Reagan “and the individuals who were closely associated with him during the Cold War period.”
     According to two orders handed down by U.S. District Judge Edward Chen in 2012, Rosenfeld “has written numerous publications about the FBI’s activities in connection with the University of California during the Cold War, and the impact those activities had on the ‘academic freedom and civil liberties’ of American citizens.”
     Chen said the alleged activities included the FBI’s political surveillance of University of California students and faculty in the 1950s and 1960s, and the agency’s attempts to oust Clark Kerr as university president.
     Chen added in the 2012 order that Rosenfeld “claims that Reagan was an FBI informant and that the FBI played an integral role in supporting Reagan’s political career. Plaintiff seeks information about how the FBI’s operations impacted Reagan’s political career, his shaping of government policy while governor of California, and the exercise of constitutionally protected activities by American citizens during this time period.”
     The three initial suits were settled in 1996. The FBI also agreed to reprocess and release the documents at issue.
     Rosenfeld received $560,000 in attorney fees and costs in the initial settlement, which preserved his “right to seek attorney fees and costs for all work done in these cases, including work done in connection with the fee negotiations … and all subsequent phases of the litigation.”
     A judge directed the FBI to conduct additional searches for responsive records, after Rosenfeld filed a motion claiming the agency failed to release the specified documents in 2006.
     Rosenfeld filed another complaint over the release of the Reagan documents in 2007.
     Chen granted Rosenfeld summary judgment in 2012, and ordered the FBI to release Ronald Reagan 1539-1541, a three-page document dated Jan. 9, 1975.
     The ongoing litigation, however, quickly exceeded the original $560,000 award of attorneys’ fees, Rosenfeld said.
     The FBI objected in response and said Rosenfeld was ineligible to receive the funds because “he did not substantially prevail” in the litigation, that it made “good faith efforts” to respond to his FOIA requests, and that his requested award amount greatly exceeded what was “reasonable.”
     The FBI estimated that it spent more than $1 million processing Rosenfeld’s requests.
     Chen said Rosenfeld “demonstrated both eligibility for and entitlement to an award of attorney’s fees” in his multidecade disputes.
     “Having found that Rosenfeld substantially prevailed in this suit, and that the government lacked a reasonable basis in law for withholding the records at issue, the court rejects the FBI’s argument that costs incurred ought to be borne by each party respectively,” Chen added, ultimately granting Rosenfeld $363,200 for the Reagan request and $107,200 for the initial trio of suits.
     Rosenfeld released “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power,” based on his research, in August 2012.
     The New Yorker called the book “encyclopedic and compelling.” Wall Street Journal said it was, “a well-written, dramatic narrative … many scoops.”
     “Subversives” was awarded an American Book Award by the Before Columbus Foundation and a National Society of Professional Journalists Sunshine Award, among other honors.
     “Rosenfeld spent 30 years and sued the FBI to research and write a single book,” Kevin Starr, a University of California history and policy professor, said. “It was worth it. This experienced investigative reporter has uncovered the secret history behind a place, a decade, a movement, and a countermovement by government that altered American society forever.”
     Chen said Rosenfeld’s work was not necessarily “purely commercial.”
     “Rosenfeld is a professional journalist who made his underlying FOIA request to find supporting materials for a book he is readying for publication,” Chen wrote in 2012, citing Davy v. CIA. “In certain circumstances where an author and journalist has a financial incentive to use FOIA to acquire source documents for use in a book, courts have declined to find an entitlement to attorney’s fees. However, the ‘mere intention to publish a book does not necessarily mean that the nature of the plaintiff’s interest is purely commercial.'”
     On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Maria-Elena James dismissed the ongoing action per an unspecified settlement between the parties last month.
     Rosenfeld and government attorneys did not return requests for comment.

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