The FOIA Process: Still as Archaic as Snail Mail


There are very few occasions in the Sunlight offices for us to use the fax machine, so we were somewhat out of practice when we learned that we had to use it to send Freedom of Information Act requests to the Department of Treasury. At least the fax is instantaneous: we received most of our responses from them via snail mail.

To do this story, which involved looking into various agencies in charge of the bailout of the financial sector, we had to file seven FOIA requests–all sent via fax to Treasury–then make several phone calls to follow up on our request. We had to justify our request for a fee waiver in some calls, but most were devoted to patiently, politely cajoling FOIA officers to expedite our requests. It took us more than three months from the time the first FOIA was sent out to when we could compile all the material we needed to publish the story. All we wanted was a list of names of people in charge of making decisions about which bank gets money under the bailout–information that presumably shouldn’t require a FOIA request.

Despite President Obama’s January 21 directive to agencies to act in the spirit of openness and make an effort to improve the FOIA process, our recent experiences with Treasury, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and others that regulate banks and are central to the bailout haven’t been much different than our experiences with the Bush administration. Earlier, FOIA requests sent to Treasury took almost the same time, even without the phone calls trying to expedite the process.

The reason Treasury doesn’t accept FOIA requests via e-mail is because of an internal regulation that requires the person making a request to submit a signature, according to Hugh Gilmore, the public FOIA liaison for the agency. Treasury also requires that they need a requester to say that they are willing to pay a minimum of $25.00 for the documents requested.

Acknowledging that the number of requests coming into Treasury as a result of the bailout and setting up of the Office of Financial Stability has increased, Gilmore said that they have added eight to ten people to handle the influx. “We are changing the methods used to answer FOIA requests with the increased use of technology, especially for the Office of Financial Stability,” Gilmore said. Keeping with the memo Treasury is changing internal policies and will be adopting amended provisions of transparency with regards to FOIA.

This report by the Sunshine in Government Initiative looks at performance of federal agencies sums up the state of FOIA in 2008, “Despite reforms enacted by Congress and an order from the last administration to do a better job, federal agencies continue to give those seeking information a frustrating and oftentimes unsatisfying experience.”

In January 2007 when Real Time started to regularly seek logs of correspondence between Members of Congress and federal agencies, we sent out FOIA requests to more than 120 agencies. Only a handful responding in a timely fashion; most required frequent phone calls to follow up on the requests. And in the past two years only a dozen agencies have given us the logs of correspondences in the electronic format we’ve asked for–that is, as an excel or comma separated format. Over the last couple of years, the project morphed into sending out FOIAs to fewer agencies