For Immediate Release: May 13, 2019
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337
PEER Fights D.C.’s Attempt to Neuter FOIA
Letter Protests the District’s Bad Process for Bad Legislation
Washington, DC — Today PEER delivered a letter outlining its many concerns with the proposed Freedom of Information Clarification Amendment Act of 2019 which is scheduled for a vote tomorrow, May 14, 2019. Last Tuesday the D.C. City Council included in the last four pages of its 160-page 2020 budget report a “technical clarifying” amendment to the District’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which upends a decades-long legacy of open government. The Amendment, introduced only a week before passage and with no announcement or fanfare, changes the law so that no more embarrassing emails by City Council members or public employees can be dug up by the public.
The current law allows any person to request any of the government’s records as long as they “reasonably describe” it in general terms. Tomorrow’s amendment changes the meaning of “reasonably describe” so that the District will only honor requests which include the names of a sender and recipient for a document, the date it was created, and what specifically is in the record. These requirements are virtually impossible to fulfill except for requesters who have already seen the records requested, handicapping the law’s ability to make hidden wrongdoing public.
“This is a bad faith attempt to permanently close public access to embarrassing government secrets,” explained PEER Staff Counsel Kevin Bell. “Its corrupt motive is clear from the way the DC Council tried to sneak it under the radar.” The text of the Amendment is not available online, while members of the public were given no opportunity to oppose it–and only a week was allowed before the vote is scheduled, tomorrow.
“The timing of this bill couldn’t be more suspicious,” Bell concluded. “Two months ago Council Member Jack Evans had his latest corrupt pay-to-play scheme exposed by FOIA, and now they want to kill it before the public finds the next one.”
PEER’s letter to the City Council emphasizes that the District has thus far defied the Trump Administration’s unreasonable demands to accommodate the President’s whimsy or totalitarian tendencies, but this Amendment is far more extreme than any press restriction the White House has sought to impose.