In a statement last month, the Sierra Club said the administration’s motivation for the rule change was clear.
“Trump and [EPA Administrator Andrew] Wheeler are trying to end transparency and FOIA as we know it in a blatant attempt to hide their backdoor dealings with polluters,” said Pat Gallagher, director of the organization’s Environmental Law Program. “Make no mistake—this is happening precisely because transparency laws have revealed numerous embarrassing and even career ending scandals for Scott Pruitt and others.”
The Center for Biological Diversity and the Environmental Integrity Project joined a number of other advocacy organizations to express concerns about the new rule in a letter (pdf) to Wheeler earlier this month.
Among their concerns were that the “rule inappropriately authorizes political appointees to make FOIA determinations and significantly increases the potential for abuse of the FOIA process.” In addition, they warned, “Requiring all FOIA requests to be submitted to, and reviewed by, EPA Headquarters increases the potential for political abuse of the FOIA process.”
The Environmental Integrity Project issued fresh criticism on Wednesday.
“EPA’s rule would let political appointees decide whether or when to release information they are required to disclose by law,” said Sylvia Lam, an attorney at the watchdog organization. “Not surprisingly, this administration has made that decision without even giving the public a chance to comment on this radical departure from current practice, which is to allow an agency’s expert attorneys to make these legal determinations.”
“The Freedom of Information Act holds government accountable to the governed by letting the public see how decisions are made,” she said. “EPA’s action strikes a blow at democratic values that are more important today than ever before.”
Lawmakers have also taken aim at the new rule, with a bipartisan group of senators on Tuesday introducing related legislation.
Called the Open and Responsive Government Act (S. 2220) and introduced by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the measure is meant to counter to the EPA FOIA change as well as the recent Supreme Court ruling last month that “the term ‘confidential’ can be interpreted broadly to allow the government to withhold from disclosure under FOIA private businesses’ financial or commercial data in the government’s possession, even if the disclosure of that information would not cause any harm to the businesses,” as CNN reported.
Leahy, in a statement, said: “Our bill is a targeted, commonsense step to bolster our premier transparency law, the Freedom of Information Act. The bill would limit the extent to which the government can use a recent Supreme Court opinion to justify abuses of a particular FOIA exemption to withhold information.
“And,” he continued, “it would codify another court decision—one that the Trump administration increasingly ignores—prohibiting the government from withholding information on the tenuous rationale that it is supposedly not responsive to the FOIA request.”
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