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When the feds won’t give up information the public owns
There’s no better example of our broken system than the partial Freedom of Information (FOI) response I just got. It’s from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regarding an Obamacare FOI request I made several years ago when I was at CBS News and investigating the failed launch and serious security risks surrounding the Affordable Care Act national website. A couple of points:
In 2013, I asked for simple public information regarding the website, but the government improperly refused to provide it.
I filed a FOI request, which requires the government to process and provide the material within about 20 days.
The government didn’t provide any of the material in the lawful time frame, which, unfortunately, is currently the typical response from federal agencies in response to FOI requests.
I eventually filed a FOI lawsuit with the help of Judicial Watch.
The government spent your tax dollars defending the lawsuit. It has no incentive to provide the material because drawing out the case and withholding the public information costs us money, but doesn’t cost them money and the desired obfuscation is achieved (at our expense).
The court and HHS agreed I was entitled to the public information all along, but there was no punishment for those who had withheld it.
HHS said there were tens of thousands of pages of responsive documents, that it was too many for them to process on a timely basis, and that it would require massive resources.
I offered to drop the entire lawsuit if HHS would simply agree to one on camera interview so that I could ask questions I posed in 2013 that officials wouldn’t answer. They declined.
They would rather spent their time and taxpayer money processing the tens of thousands of pages of documents.
The court allowed the government to propose a “rolling production schedule” of the documents, producing them periodically over time instead of all at once.
The schedule that HHS proposed meant I would get the final documents in approximately 2029.
(A reminder: I needed the material for reporting I was doing in 2013.)
That would be a 16 year response time for information that was legally due in about 20 days back in 2013.
I argued that was unreasonable.
District Judge Tanya Chutkan agreed, replying:
I’ve done my share of document reviewing in my life. I could do 500 pages in an afternoon. So I don’t understand this. And the plaintiff is right. This is like a 14-year schedule [from the time of the lawsuit]. This is unacceptable. So you need to tell me exactly what’s involved so I can assess this production rate of 500 pages every two months, because that’s not going to fly. –U.S. District Judge Tana Chutkan in Attkisson v. HHS, July 10, 2015
HHS eventually agreed to a speedier schedule that will still take years.
When I received the first batch of documents from HHS under its “rolling production” schedule, I saw that they were heavily, improperly redacted.
I wanted to challenge the redactions, as FOI law entitles me to do, but I was told I had to wait until the production was complete.
I again offered to withdraw the lawsuit and save the government much time and taxpayer money, if an HHS official would do an interview. They declined.
I recently received my latest batch of documents. You can view them here:
2008 December: President Obama nominates Hillary Clinton for secretary of state. 2009 Jan. 13: Reports say the clintonemail.com domain was established. Jan. 21: Senate confirms Clinton as secretary of state. March 18: Clinton will later name this as the date she began using a private server for government business. 2012 Sept. 11: Islamic extremists launch […]