Obama Cabinet fails to meet requirements of law requiring transparency
On his first full day in office, President Obama ordered federal officials to “usher in a new era of open government” and “act promptly” to make information public.
But as Obama nears the end of his term, his administration hasn’t met those goals, failing to follow the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act, according to an analysis of open-government requests.
Nineteen of 20 Cabinet-level agencies disobeyed the law requiring the disclosure of public information: The cost of travel by top officials. In all, just eight of the 57 federal agencies met Bloomberg’s request for those documents within the 20-day window required by the Act.
“When it comes to implementation of Obama’s wonderful transparency policy goals, especially FOIA policy in particular, there has been far more ‘talk the talk’ rather than ‘walk the walk,”’ said Daniel Metcalfe, director of the Department of Justice’s office monitoring government compliance with FOIA requests from 1981 to 2007.
The Bloomberg survey was designed in part to gauge the timeliness of responses, which Attorney General Eric Holder called “an essential component of transparency” in a March 2009 memo. About half of the 57 agencies disclosed the out-of-town travel expenses generated by their top official by Sept. 14, most of them well past the legal deadline.
Bloomberg reporters in June filed FOIA requests for fiscal year 2011 taxpayer-supported travel for Cabinet secretaries and top officials. Justice Department official Melanie Ann Pustay said in an interview that disclosure of those records is in the public interest.
Even agency heads who publicly announce their events — including Holder, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius — didn’t provide the costs of their out-of-town trips more than three months after the initial request.
“It’s ironic that the demands in the presidential campaign for Mitt Romney’s tax returns are unrelenting, but when it comes time to release the schedules for senior appointees there’s the same denial of access,” said Paul Light, a New York University professor who studies the federal bureaucracy.
“Over the past four years, federal agencies have gone to great efforts to make government more transparent and more accessible than ever, to provide people with information that they can use in their daily lives,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, who noted that Obama received an award for his commitment to open government. The March 2011 presentation of that award was closed to the press.
The travel costs generated by some other Obama officials — Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, and Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano — also remain undisclosed.
A request made in June for the travel records of Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will remain unfulfilled for more than a year, according to a federal official involved in the case.
“We really appreciate your patience in this matter. The estimated completion date is July 2013,” wrote Chris Barnes, a State Department FOIA official, in a Sept. 24 e-mail. Under FOIA, the department is required to offer a timetable for delayed responses.
Government travel costs have received greater scrutiny since a report by the General Services Administration’s inspector general on April 2 revealed that a 2010 Las Vegas junket — featuring a mind reader and a clown — cost taxpayers more than $823,000. Since then, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson has resigned and the IG has referred the matter to the Department of Justice.
Records obtained as a result of another Bloomberg FOIA request showed that the GSA almost tripled its expenditures for conferences from 2005 to 2010. Taxpayers paid $27.8 million for more than 200 overnight gatherings attended by at least 50 GSA employees over the five-year period, according to the records.
Under Obama, federal agencies also have stepped up the use of exemptions to block the release of information.
During the first year of the administration, cabinet agencies employed exemptions 466,402 times, a 50 percent jump from the last year of the presidency of George W. Bush. While exemption citations have since been reduced by 21 percent from that high, they still are above the level seen during the Bush administration, according to Justice Department data.
The majority of the exemptions came from the Department of Homeland Security, which gets the most requests, records show.
The greater number of documents released online helps explain the increased use of exemptions, according to Tracy Russo, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department. “The pool of requests that are made tend to be more complex,” she said.
Open government advocates note that Obama’s transparency pledge is undermined by a federal bureaucracy that often cites staff shortages and compliance costs to delay the release of information.
“I don’t think the administration has been very good at all on open-government issues,” said Katherine Meyer, a Washington attorney who has been filing open records requests since the late 1970s. “The Obama administration is as bad as any of them, and to some extent worse.”