Political operatives within the Obama administration wrongly punished conservative legal group Judicial Watch, stripping it of “media” status and trying to force it to pay higher fees for its open records requests, the General Services Administration inspector general said in a letter released Thursday.
The GSA botched several high-profile open records requests, delaying them for months while political appointees got involved, Inspector General Carol F. Ochoa said. The findings were released while the administration was facing charges of slow-walking open records requests for Hillary Clinton’s emails, as well as other requests.
In the case of Judicial Watch, the order to strip it of media status came from political operatives with long ties to Democratic causes — and even from the White House.
The inspector general said the decision came at the behest of Gregory Mecher, a former Democratic campaign fundraiser who at the time was liaison to the White House. He is married to Jen Psaki, a longtime spokeswoman with the Obama administration and its election campaigns.
Ms. Ochoa said stripping Judicial Watch of media status violated several agency policies and things got worse when the GSA denied an appeal by the group.
The same person who ruled on the initial request also ruled on the appeal, “contrary to GSA procedures,” the inspector general said.
Judicial Watch ended up suing over the request, the agency finally agreed to waive all fees and even ended up paying Judicial Watch $750 as part of the settlement.
Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, questioned the agency’s decision to fight a losing case that ended up costing it money.
“It’s outrageous but not surprising. Welcome to our world. This is what we put up with all the time from the agencies,” he said.
President Obama promised an era of transparency when it came to open records requests under the Freedom of Information Act, which is the chief way for Americans to pry loose data from the federal government.
Despite the president’s exhortations, the government is increasingly fighting requests, forcing the public to file lawsuits to look at information.
Last year, the administration spent $31.3 million to fight FOIA cases — more than twice the $15.4 million the administration spent in 2008, the final year under President George W. Bush.
The GSA has not been one of the major offenders, reporting no FOIA legal spending in 2015 and just $11,000 a year in 2014 and 2013, when it faced Judicial Watch’s lawsuit and paid the $750 settlement.
That doesn’t mean the agency has been operating cleanly. In a 2010 letter, a previous inspector general said the agency botched a request seeking information about GSA communications with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and two other Democrats.
White House officials got involved and further delayed the request, the inspector general said.
Ms. Ochoa said in her letter that she found three bungled cases in the five years since that 2010 investigation. A 2013 request for records mentioning Donald Trump — now the Republican presidential nominee — took 242 days, five times the average. A 2012 request seeking information on GSA bonuses was blocked for 515 days.
The Judicial Watch request, though, was the most striking.
The group was trying to get a look at a goofy video produced by the agency’s New York office on company time and using company resources. The GSA at the time was facing fierce criticism from Capitol Hill for having wasted money on lavish conferences with questionable team-building activities such as the video.
Judicial Watch asked to be treated similar to a member of the media, which would mean an exemption from fees. Two weeks earlier, Judicial Watch was approved for the media exemption.
But ahead of the GSA request, Mr. Mecher, the political appointee with ties to the White House, requested that Judicial Watch’s status be re-examined, investigators said. Elliot Mincberg, a lawyer with deep Democratic ties who was on loan to the GSA at the time, issued a determination rejecting Judicial Watch as a media requester.
Ms. Ochoa said the justification for that was weak — a page from a Justice Department guide that predated the current law governing the definition of media. Mr. Mincberg “did not conduct any independent legal research” about the 2007 law, and that “shows a lack of due diligence,” Ms. Ochoa concluded.
The GSA then failed to follow its own procedures in its denial letter — despite internal misgivings — and again in mishandling the appeal, Ms. Ochoa wrote.
“Why are White House liaisons involved in our FOIA request?” said Mr. Fitton, the Judicial Watch president.
Mr. Mecher, who is now a top congressional staffer in the office of Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, did not respond to an email seeking comment on his role.
Mr. Mincberg said in an email that he “performed a relatively minor task” at Mr. Mecher’s request but declined to elaborate, saying he was acting at the time as an attorney for the agency and would need its approval to speak more.
Mr. Mincberg had been lent to the GSA as a FOIA troubleshooter — though his arrival was met with skepticism. Ms. Ochoa reported that one senior lawyer emailed a colleague saying, “This will not end well.”
Later, Mr. Mincberg would run into trouble at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he was a senior attorney.
In 2014, that department’s inspector general cited him for obstructing an investigation into the deputy secretary. Mr. Mincberg was accused of withholding information from investigators, appearing to coach witnesses and, during one interview, threatening to bring charges against the investigators themselves.
GSA spokeswoman Ashley Nash-Hahn did not respond to specific questions about Mr. Mincberg or Mr. Mecher, but insisted that her agency had improved its handling of FOIA requests. She said the agency has a new tracking system and increased training and coordination.
“With these improvements, GSA accelerated its processing time from an average of 21 days for simple requests and 63 days for complex requests in fiscal year 2013 to 12 days for simple requests and 46 days for complex requests last fiscal year,” she said.
Judicial Watch is fighting a series of court cases to get a look at Mrs. Clinton’s emails from the State Department and has other cases pending against the CIA, the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the IRS.
A case against the Homeland Security Department, in which Judicial Watch argued that the department regularly obstructed its requests, was dismissed Thursday.
Judge Richard J. Leon, sitting in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, ruled that delays for Judicial Watch’s requests weren’t enough to prove that Homeland Security was violating its policies.
“Judicial Watch points to no fact or statement to establish why the requests were delayed or how the delays were the result of an either formal or informal DHS policy or practice to violate FOIA’s requirements, rather than an inevitable but unintended delay attributable to a lack of resources,” the judge wrote.
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