Suit Could Shed Light on U.S. Archeology Records

     (CN) – The State Department must unearth more files about its committee that gives advice on the handling of goods found at archeological sites, a federal judge ruled.
     President Ronald Reagan established the 11-member Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) in 1983 to advise the U.S. president on archaeological finds.
     Arthur Houghton, an original member who left the committee in 1987, has since testified at public CPAC meetings about his “concerns about requests for import restrictions on cultural goods made by the Republic of Italy and the Republic of Greece,” according to a lawsuit he filed in May 2011.
     Houghton filed suit after the State Department allegedly ignored his request for documents that he said bear on his “good name and reputation.”
     The request seeks documents submitted or compiled by committee member Joan Connelly that mention any variant of Houghton’s name.
     “Upon information and belief, Connelly has created a list comprised of opponents to import restrictions on cultural goods who have testified at CPAC hearings,” Houghton’s complaint states. “Plaintiff has a good faith belief that Connelly has placed him on this list and has created a record of potentially defamatory material with the goal of using this material to undercut plaintiff’s testimony during CPAC’s closed-door deliberations.”
     An official who oversees the department’s responses to requests under the Freedom of Information Act testified about the retrieval of closed meeting transcripts from 2009 and 2010 in which discussions focused on a 1985 letter that Houghton wrote and published in The Los Angeles Times.
     The State Department withheld the meeting minutes, however, noting that they concerned restrictions on archaeological items from Italy and El Salvador, and memoranda of understanding between the United States and those countries.
     Claiming that disclosure of such discussions would compromise negotiations, the department claimed that the documents qualified for a FOIA exemption and were not subject to the Privacy Act.
     U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson agreed Thursday that the transcripts were properly withheld, noting that the minutes are about Houghton’s letter rather than him as an individual.
     The court also found, however, that Houghton can still challenge the adequacy of the department’s search. He could find relief if Connelly used an official State Department email account during the relevant time period.
     Berman wants the department to explain how it plans to search such an account, or why it thinks the FOIA would not require a search of email files.
     The State Department has until Aug. 1 to provide the additional information.

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