(CN) - The FBI must pay for lying to a court and withholding information about its investigations of Southern California's Muslim community, a federal judge ruled, calling the government's deception in the long-running case deliberate and "inexcusable."
Both U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney and the 9th Circuit have previously found that the FBI improperly held back a trove of documents from the court in a lawsuit involving several Muslim-American community organizations and leaders, including the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California and the Council on American Islamic Relations-California.
The organizations had filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in 2006, seeking documents related to any bureau investigations of their members since 2001. They sued the government a year later when their request produced a mere eight pages, most of them heavily redacted.
The FBI eventually came up with about 100 pages of documents on nine of the 11 plaintiffs. But the government heavily redacted those documents, claiming that much of the information was outside the scope of the FOIA request. Asked to permit release of the redacted information, Judge Carney reviewed the full documents in chambers. Only then did the FBI reveal, for the first time, that it had withheld documents from both the plaintiffs and the court.
An incensed Judge Carney attempted to unseal the withheld documents, but the government filed an emergency appeal with the 9th Circuit. Two panels of the federal appeals court in Pasadena considered the issue, and in March ruled that the documents should remain sealed, despite the FBI's deception. While the documents should have been given to the court, the FBI had justifiably kept them from the plaintiffs based on national security concerns, according to the appellate court's finding, to which Carney consented.
But that decision did not resolve the more-than-5-year-old case, with the plaintiffs seeking sactions against the government for lying to the court. Judge Carney agreed, granted the motion Thursday from Santa Ana with an impassioned defense of the federal judiciary's oversight responsibilities under FOIA.
"The government claims that its intention was not to mislead the court but that it was following a well-established policy of the attorney general to deny the existence of responsive documents if, in the sole opinion of the government, the disclosure of the information in the responsive documents would compromise national security," he wrote. "The government's deception of the court was inexcusable. The court cannot perform its important oversight role mandated by FOIA unless the government provides it with complete and accurate information. It is the court, not the government, who determines what the law requires. The court must impose monetary sanctions to deter the government from deceiving the court again."
"There is no legal precedent that the court is aware of - and the government has furnished none - that permits submission of false information to the court in any circumstance, including in the context of a FOIA request," he added. "Indeed, presenting false information to the court is antithetical to the very structure of FOIA, which mandates judicial oversight by the District Court."
Judge Carney ordered the government to pay "the amount of reasonable attorneys' fees to plaintiffs for bringing the instant motion."
Islamic Shura Council of Southern California Executive Director Shakeel Syed praised the decision. "We applaud the Court for restraining the government and upholding the Bill of Rights," Syed said in a statement.
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