Justice Official Under Fire at Senate for Public-Records Handling

WASHINGTON (CN) – Railing against the delays, unnecessary secrecy and buckets of black redaction ink that bedevil the public-records process, members of the U.S. Senate pressed government officials Tuesday about their efforts to improve compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.

Senator Pat Leahy balked in particular when, under pressure about the Justice Department’s withholding of a report on a police-involved shooting, Melanie Pustay with the DOJ’s Office of Information Policy mentioned new public-records training that federal officials would soon undergo.

“I don’t care about robust training,” said Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. “The word robust has become the biggest misuse and cliche in government.”

Pustay appeared on the defensive for most of this morning’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, citing last week’s unveiling of a national FOIA portal as one way her office is improving FOIA processes.

The unified portal was part of a 2016 law that made changes to FOIA. Pustay said allowing people or groups to submit records requests though a single website to any government agency simplifies an otherwise complicated process.

But lawmakers were skeptical the procedure has really improved, especially in the area of proactively releasing government records. Pustay told Sen. Chuck Grassley that agencies post on their website any document they have already released three times, but the Iowa Republican was confused why they have to wait so long before publishing.

Pustay said agencies have pushed back on the so-called “release to one, release to all” proposal because it takes time to “code and prepare documents” for publication. She said many agencies use the same people to prepare documents for release and process FOIA requests, meaning publicly posting every released document would put a strain on FOIA resources.

“Three is, I think, a really strong measure,” Pustay said.

Grassley noted the policy was supposed to be in place in January 2017 and that the current practice of publishing only documents the government has released three times does not add up.

“I think it doesn’t meet the common-sense test,” the Iowa Republican said.

Just a day earlier, the Associated Press published a report critical of the Trump administration’s response to FOIA requests. The report called 2017 the worst year in the past decade when it came to substantive responses to FOIA requests, with the government turning over redacted documents or nothing in 78 percent of requests.

When asked about the report at Tuesday’s hearing, Pustay said her office has not completely reviewed it. She did note, however, that the agency processed 800,000 requests during the eight months the AP reviewed, giving agencies more opportunities to cite exemptions than in the past.

Pustay said the AP’s analysis did not account enough for the substantial increase in requests filed, arguing the surge in filings makes raw numbers misleading.

“We don’t see at all any change in the basic release rate across the government,” Pustay said.

 

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