GOP Lawmakers Charge EPA Lacks Transparency, Seek DOJ Probe

March 8, 2013 - 4:02 PM

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

(CNSNews.com) – The Environmental Protection Agency is “erecting barriers” to making information available to the public, GOP members of Congress said in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, calling for an investigation into the agency.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, joined Sen. Charles Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. David Vitter (R- La.), ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, sent the letter to Holder Thursday and announced it on Friday.

Pointing specifically to the EPA Region 6, the three Republican lawmakers charged that the EPA may be violating the law and was at a minimum violating President Barack Obama’s stated goal of greater transparency, by not responding to information requests from the public.

The letter from lawmakers quotes former EPA Region 6 Administrator Al Armendariz referring to public information requests as “FOIA nonsense.”

Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the government is required to provide requested government documents to the public, with some exceptions, such as national security. But the agency has not been providing that information to the public, the lawmakers say.

“The mismanagement of FOIA requests at multiple levels of the EPA requires your immediate attention,” the letter said. “We have learned that the EPA has struggled to observe the President’s commitment to transparency: their staff is poorly trained, does not place a priority on responding to FOIA requests, and appears to be more interested in erecting barriers than in ensuring requests are promptly and properly fulfilled,” Vitter, Grassley, and Issa wrote in their letter.

The letter goes on to say, “Given concerns from both Congress and open government advocates that the federal bureaucracy often hinders the Administration’s transparency pledge, it is imperative we ensure the FOIA’s requirements are met. As such, we request that you initiate an investigation into the EPA’s compliance with the FOIA and all applicable guidance.”

An e-mail obtained by the committees shows Geoffrey Wilcox of the EPA Office of General Counsel, vaguely referring to how to handle “such requests” for information.

“Unless something has changed, my understanding is that there are some standard protocols we usually follow in such FOIA requests,” Wilcox wrote. “One of the first steps is to alert the requestor that they need to narrow their request because it is overbroad, and secondarily that it will probably cost more than the amount of $ they agreed to pay.”

The three Republican lawmakers specifically questioned if referring to the handling of “such requests” by asking the requester to alter their search is a way of obstructing responses to what the agency doesn’t want to answer.

“Mr. Wilcox’s guidance on ‘such FOIA requests’ is subject to several interpretations that raise additional questions about the EPA’s commitment to processing FOIA requests,” the letter said. “In light of the controversial nature of the requests in question, a possible reading of the statement suggests that ‘such FOIA requests’ could refer to unfavorable requests that question the EPA policies.

“Alternatively, ‘such FOIA requests’ could mean any FOIA request,” the letter continued. Either way, his guidance appears to suggest that the EPA automatically informs a petitioner that their request is over broad and that the fees will be more than what the requestor agreed to pay. This is obviously problematic as such guidance would delay the EPA’s production even if a request was narrow or if a requestor was subject to a fee waiver.”