House Investigators Document EPA’s Political Screening, Slow-Walking of FOIAs

June 28, 2018

A top House Democrat is accusing EPA of deliberately politically screening and slow-walking the fulfillment of Freedom of Information Act requests — and journalism groups are objecting to the delay.

The Society of Environmental Journalists wrote Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on June 26, calling on him to "to end this assault on government transparency now."

Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, wrote Pruitt June 11 expressing concern about how FOIA requests were being handled at EPA. The text of Cummings’ letter is here. Cummings’ letter documented the throttling of FOIA at EPA with interview transcripts, emails, agency documents and even news accounts.

SEJ was joined in its letter of protest to Pruitt by the Society of Professional Journalists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Radio Television Digital News Association.

“We emphatically urge you to immediately put an end to such practices,” the letter said, “and follow the EPA's regulations that govern how it should respond to Freedom of Information Act requests, for the sake of government transparency and greater public understanding.”

The text of the journalism groups’ letter to Pruitt is here.

Cummings’ letter provided evidence of deliberate delay in fulfilling FOIA requests for the time when Pruitt has been in office. Pruitt’s top brass told staff to follow a “first in, first out” processing sequence. Because of EPA’s backlog of requests, Obama-era requests would be filled before requests filed during — or about the time when — Pruitt has been in office.

The resulting delays have been estimated on the order of hundreds of days, even though the FOIA law itself requires agencies to respond within 20 working days.

The delay is strategically important at a time when news media are discovering and revealing new  EPA scandals several times a week — often on the basis of FOIA documents.

Also documented clearly in Cummings’ letter is near-total political screening of FOIA responses before they go out to requesters. It states: “On June 6, 2017, Attorney-Advisor Jonathan Newton sent an email instructing FOIA coordinators at EPA to send pending FOIA releases for review by three Trump Administration political appointees.”