Federal Judge Rebukes White House for Misleading Response to FOIA Request

Published June 29, 2016

Judge Amit Mehta of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled on May 9, the Obama administration had engaged in “bad faith” in its handling of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request made by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI).

CEI made its FOIA request to investigate assertions made by the White House about the existence of human-caused global warming.

Mehta’s ruling is a victory for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has long challenged the science behind the theory of manmade global warming. CEI used FOIA to seek data used to support a statement made by John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology (OST), claiming global warming was leading to colder winters. Holdren’s comments were made public in a video posted on the White House’s website.

Data Denied

CEI’s FOIA request was met with stiff resistance and shifting explanations by the Obama administration.

Staffers at OST initially claimed they could find only 11 pages of documents, none containing data supporting Holdren’s assertion. That figure was later raised to 47 pages, but the White House attempted to withhold them, claiming they were protected from release because they were for internal use only. OST officials then acknowledged the existence of 52 additional pages of drafts they had withheld, but they claimed the documents were similar to what OST had already produced. Finally, OST staffers said they had found 10 more draft documents, bringing the total number of pages uncovered related to Holdren’s claims concerning diminishing winters to 112. 

‘Inconsistent Representations’

In his ruling, Mehta said CEI’s “truth-seeking” FOIA requests should be honored.

“At some point, the government’s inconsistent representations about the scope and completeness of its searches must give way to the truth-seeking function of the adversarial process, including the tools available through discovery. This case has crossed that threshold.”

CEI General Counsel Sam Kazman told Newsmax after the ruling, “As the government’s course of action here demonstrates, there’s a clear pattern when it comes to this administration: In dealing with global warming issues, agencies tend to act illegally.”

By taking the unusual step of allowing discovery, Mehta empowered CEI to obtain the documents it has sought for months. Discovery allows greater access than FOIA and is less dependent on the cooperation of those from whom documents are being requested. Traditionally, courts have given the government the benefit of the doubt when carrying out searches for requested documents under FOIA. Mehta determined the government’s action’s in this case undermined the normal case for deference.

As The Washington Times noted, this is the third time within the past year a judge has scolded the Obama administration for failure to comply with document requests. The other two cases involved the State Department’s foot-dragging in response to requests for documents related to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server.

“Judge Mehta is [not] the first, nor will he be the last, judge to say he’s had enough with the executive branch’s refusal to execute the law—in this case the Freedom of Information Act,” said David W. Schnare, general counsel for the Energy and Environment Legal Institute. “An angry electorate is fed up with this kind of Washington, DC, hide-the-ball government, and that is why we and CEI have had to go to the courts to bring big government back to the people.”

Craig Rucker, executive director of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, also blasted the Obama administration’s record on transparency.

“The disrespect this administration has for the rule of law is matched by its contempt for taxpayers with whose money these games are played,” said Rucker. “They crow about transparency but use public institutions, including the already overburdened court system, to pull the wool over the public’s eyes.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.