Treasury tops worst FOIA responders

The Treasury Department has won the 2008 Rosemary Award, an annual citation that an open-government group gives to the federal agency it says responds most poorly to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The award is the fourth of its kind that has been given out by George Washington University’s National Security Archive, a research institute and library that has filed about 35,000 FOIA requests since its inception in 1985. The CIA and the Air Force are past winners of the award, named after Rose Mary Woods, the late Nixon secretary who testified that she inadvertently erased several minutes of audiotapes containing secret recordings of Oval Office conversations.

Thomas Blanton, NSA’s director, said that Treasury won the award because of its “outstandingly bad performance” in responding to FOIA requests. Blanton added that Treasury had also performed badly in previous audits, but past Rosemary Award winners performed worse.

“The problem with Treasury is they have been a mediocre or poor performer in our previous six audits,” he said.

Blanton said NSA looked at about 70 FOIA requests it has with Treasury, most of which are still outstanding, the oldest one more than 20 years old, when making its decision.

"Treasury takes the FOIA process very seriously and has worked hard to run it in a timely fashion,” said Treasury Department spokeswoman Eileen Gilligan. “The department has put in place a plan to reduce the backlog and is on track to reduce it by 10 percent every year."

The announcement coincides with Sunshine Week, a nationwide open-government initiative funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a private organization that promotes excellence in journalism, which also funds NSA.

The Knight Foundation and the archive made headlines March 16, when Sunshine Week kicked off with the release of a report on progress that 90 federal agencies have made since President Bush signed an executive order to revamp the FOIA system two years ago. The report card was mixed.

The government has made some improvement, but failed to make much progress on the backlogs and has not significantly improved compliance with electronic FOIA requirements, the Knight Open Government Survey released by NSA March 16 states.

“Despite spurring progress in some areas, President Bush’s executive order on FOIA has produced only limited improvements in FOIA compliance, and many of the 90 agencies surveyed have fallen short in meeting their own goals set pursuant to the order,” it reads.

The 2005 executive order required agencies to appoint a chief FOIA officer and improve the system through which citizens can submit FOIA requests. To survey the order’s achievements, the archive submitted FOIA requests to 90 federal agencies for records relating to their implementation plans for the executive order. The survey noted improvements in customer service spurred by the three-tiered approach mandated by the 2005 order.

But backlogs of FOIA requests remain a significant problem for many agencies — with up to 200,000 outstanding FOIA requests governmentwide. The survey identified Treasury as performing particularly poorly in this area, using what the report calls the “Wait Out the Requester: Department of Treasury Approach to the FOIA Backlog.”

The groups also cite only “limited improvement in compliance with the 1996 E-FOIA amendments” that require agencies to post FOIA guidance and particular records online. The survey noted that in a follow-up to an earlier Archive report on agency Web sites, only one-third of the 12 worst agencies showed significant improvement.

On March 12, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced legislation that would require lawmakers to state any intention to provide for statutory exemptions to FOIA in new legislative proposals.

On Dec. 31, Bush signed the Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act of 2007, which amended FOIA to place more responsibility on agencies to meet deadlines.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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