Obama transparency criticized at Senate hearing

Michael P. Tremoglie Mar. 15, 2012, 12:18pm


WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) -- A federal official has said President Obama's transparency policies are working, but others don't think so.

Melanie Ann Pustay, director of the Office of Information Policy of the Department of Justice, testified March 13 before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary about the administration's transparency and its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) policy. Some senators -- and others in the legal community -- say the administration is opaque.

Pustay spoke of DOJ's efforts to ensure that Obama's Jan. 21, 2009, memorandum on the FOIA, as well as Attorney General Eric Holder's FOIA Guidelines, were being implemented. She said DOJ is "strongly committed to encouraging compliance with the Act by all agencies and to promoting open government."

According to Pustay, Holder issued his new FOIA guidelines during "Sunshine Week," March 19, 2009. These guidelines concerned the transparency President Obama promised during his election campaign.

"I am particularly pleased to report on the successes achieved by the Department of Justice," Pustay told the Senators. "This past fiscal year, the Department increased the number of responses to FOIA requests in which records were released in full or in part."

But others are not so pleased. The Senate Judiciary Committee's ranking member is one.

"Although it's Sunshine Week, I'm sorry to report that contrary to President Obama's proclamations when he took office, after three years, the sun still isn't shining in Washington, D.C.," Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said. "Based on my experience in trying to pry information out of the executive branch, I'm disappointed to report that agencies under the control of President Obama's political appointees have been more aggressive than ever in withholding information from the public and from Congress.

"There's a complete disconnect between the President's grand pronouncements about transparency and the actions of his political appointees."

Grassley mentioned an attorney, Katherine Meyer, who has made FOIA requests since 1978. He quoted Meyer as saying, "The Obama administration "is the worst on FOIA issues. The worst. There's just no question about it ... This administration is raising one barrier after another.

"It's gotten to the point where I'm stunned - I'm really stunned."

Even more derogatory was Grassley's example of the experience of Congressman Darrell Issa who he said, "learned that political staff under Secretary Napolitano corrupted the agency's FOIA compliance procedures, exerted pressure on FOIA compliance officers, and undermined the federal government's accountability to the American people."

Others have offered similar opinions about the lack of transparency by the Obama administration despite Mr. Obama's pronouncement to be committed to transparency during his election campaign and when he first took office.

Richard W. Painter is a law professor at the University of Minnesota. He is a graduate of Yale law school. From February 2005 to July 2007, he was Associate Counsel to the President in the White House Counsel's office. He served as the chief ethics lawyer for the President. He is a member of the American Law Institute and an advisor for its Principles of Government Ethics. He has also been active in the Professional Responsibility Section of the American Bar Association.

He was concerned about the lack of information regarding the political activities of White House personnel. He felt the Obama administration has not been transparent about this.

"We should not have to make FOIA requests about political activity by executive branch officials," he said. "The public is entitled to know about the political activities in which these executive branch employees are engaged. If they are going to fundraisers, the public has a right to know where they are going and who else is there."

Another issue is lobbying. He wants to know what lobbyists the administration officials are meeting with outside of the White House gates. While the Obama administration provides records of who comes to the White House, according to Prof. Painter, lobbyists are meeting with administration officials outside of the White House grounds in government buildings where no records are kept of who enters the office.

"Given the amount of concern the Senator Obama expressed about lobbying and that he emphasized transparency as an answer," Prof. Painter said. "The public has a right to know."

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