Agencies Obstruct Transparency

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Department of Energy and the Securities and Exchange Commission (S.E.C.) have both proposed new rules to obstruct the public’s access to information guaranteed by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In the midst of financial collapse and rampant fear of fraud (aggravated by the S.E.C.’s own negligence), the S.E.C. has decided to capitalize on the public’s dire need for information by drastically raising its rates for processing information requests, from $16 to $26 per hour at the lowest employee experience level, and from $28 to $70 per hour for senior employees. Similarly, the Department of Energy is considering rescinding its long-standing “public interest balancing test,” which allows the department to release information it normally would safeguard if it considers disclosure to be in the public’s best interest. The Department of Energy is also doubling the price it charges for photocopies to 20 cents per page.

These alterations are reminiscent of the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision in 2006 to increase the amount of toxic substances you can dump without reporting it, from 500 lbs up to 5,000 lbs. The general movement to circumvent the FOIA was institutionalized by John Ashcroft’s 2001 memorandum to the heads of all departments and agencies: “When you carefully consider FOIA requests and decide to withhold records, in whole or in part, you can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions unless they lack a sound legal basis or present an unwarranted risk of adverse impact on the ability of other agencies to protect other important records.”


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