(CN) — The Los Angeles Times sued a trio of government agencies claiming they are withholding crucial documents detailing allegations of widespread sexual abuse and misconduct at ICE detention centers.
Enacted in the 1960s, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has for decades allowed news organizations, businesses, nonprofits and even private citizens to lodge requests with the government to turn over records that may shed light on how government agencies are conducting themselves.
In years past, FOIA requests have resulted in numerous revelations — ranging from troubling spikes in death rates among prison inmates to the official White House recipe for house-brewed ale under the Obama administration — and have been behind countless legal battles between government agencies and those seeking documents.
In a FOIA case filed Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times claims the Department of Homeland Security, its Office of Inspector General and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement failed to respond to nearly a half dozen FOIA requests the Times filed more than three months ago.
According to the complaint filed in the Central District of California, the Times petitioned the government five times for the release of documents relating to allegations of rampant sexual misconduct perpetrated by staff and other detainees at ICE detention centers.
The Times says it seeks any records that could reveal how the government is responding to the allegations and what kind of polices or procedures may have been implemented to manage the issue moving forward.
But the government has not turned over any of the requested records and hasn’t even responded to or acknowledged the requests at all.
“Defendants have not claimed the records are exempt from disclosure, or offered any other substantive response,” the Times says in its 17-page complaint. “Instead, they have completely ignored the requests, leaving the Times with no choice but to file this action to compel defendants to comply with their obligations under FOIA to promptly respond and produce responsive records concerning this matter of tremendous public concern.”
The LA Times notes that under the law, government agencies typically have 20 days to respond to FOIA requests. The paper made its first request this past June.
As for why the paper seeks the information, it says the issue is of vital importance to the public. Because the United States manages the largest immigration detention system in the world with over 50,000 people detained on any given day, the potential scope of sexual harassment and misconduct within the system would be massive.
The Times notes recent reporting that shone a light on how the government is responding to the sexual harassment problem and its compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act — which lays out national standards and funding to prevent incidents of sexual violence in prisons — has raised doubt on the agencies’ handling of the issue.
“Defendants’ failure to provide any substantive response for more than three months fails to comply with FOIA and deprives the public of vital information that is necessary to evaluate whether the government is properly protecting vulnerable people in its massive, taxpayer-funded civil detention system,” the paper says in its complaint.
The Times wants a federal judge to find the government has violated FOIA by not timely responding to the document requests and to order the immediate disclose of all the requested records.
Attorneys Kelli Sager, Dan Laidman and Selina MacLaren of Davis Wright Tremaine represent the Times.