Treasury Ignores FOIA Despite Obama Open Government Initiative
May 5, 2010 Leave a comment
The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University is a seasoned FOIA requesting unit that makes news with its investigations, but the hurdles it faces in analyzing whether FOIA reforms have made a difference make may stymie its much-needed research project. In June 2008 — yes, nearly two years ago — TRAC asked the Treasury Department for its logs and statistical information used to calculate its FOIA performance each year.
I’ll pause here to let that request sink in. In fact, I’ll repeat it: TRAC filed a FOIA request for information underlying the department’s annual FOIA report. It could be fairly complicated: TRAC wanted all records showing what happened to FOIA requests (not the requests and the department’s responses themselves), the data in any FOIA tracking systems, and any guides explaining what the fields in the databases mean. And if this information were available electronically, TRAC wanted it electronically.
It might be surprising if troubling if Treasury tried to stick TRAC with a big bill. This was a big request. But Treasury’s response was to include print out selected, printed sections of a spreadsheet that showed certain fields were hidden and that, in fact, Treasury had an electronic database (or at least spreadsheet) that tracked FOIA requests. Presumably Treasury felt the need to print the selected cells because it needed to withhold certain fields in the data set and redact other fields (such as the names of individuals making requests on their own behalf). But FOIA requires that agencies give electronic copies of information held in electronic format whenever requesters want it in that format.
But that’s not what the Treasury Department’s instructions to staff say, according to TRAC. In its May 3 appeal letter, TRAC notes that Treasury’s guidelines for redacting electronic data instruct staff to first print out the requested information, then black out portions of the records and scan the pages back into an electronic format. This clearly violates the E-FOIA law.