How the FOIA Process Works:
1. An individual files a FOIA request with one of the federal agencies that are covered by the law.
2. The agency acknowledges the request with a FOIA tracking number for future reference.
3. The agency has 20 working days from the receipt of a FOIA request to fulfill it or offer an explanation for a delay. Under some circumstances, the agency has the right to take up to an additional 10 days to respond.
4. The agency has the obligation under federal law to offer a time frame to fulfill the request.
5. If the agency denies a request in part or in full, it’s required to explain why records were redacted or withheld. The individual has the right to lodge an administrative appeal with the agency. This appeal is a prerequisite to filing any lawsuit.
6. If the administrative appeal is rejected, the individual can sue the government in federal district court for the sought-after information. The federal government can appeal a ruling against it. FOIA cases can take years to resolve.
On his first full day in office, President Barack Obama ordered federal officials to “usher in a new era of open government” and “act promptly” to make information public.
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 filed by Bloomberg News.
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 the government’s 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 eventually 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 of major departments. 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.
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