The Interior Department should honor Congress’ intentions on FOIA mediation


According to a letter published by the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), the U.S. Department of the Interior is effectively ignoring six attempts by the Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Ombudsman to mediate FOIA requests dating back to February 2015.

In doing so, Interior is honoring neither the spirit nor intent of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, which established OGIS within the National Archives and Records Administration. Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, created OGIS “so that all Americans can be confident that their FOIA requests would be addressed openly and fairly.” The purpose of OGIS is to act as an independent arbiter that starts a process to resolve disputes between federal agencies and FOIA requesters.

Interior ignoring repeated requests for mediation from OGIS goes beyond disregarding the instruction of the president and U.S. attorney general to approach compliance with the Freedom of Information Act with the “presumption of openness.”

This is not illegal behavior, nor one that OGIS has the power to correct. As James Holzer, former director of OGIS, noted in the letter, “OGIS has no investigatory or enforcement power, nor can we compel an agency to release documents.”

Not substantively responding to repeated requests from OGIS, however, is effectively sticking a thumb in the eye of the ombudsman that Congress established to provide independent oversight and arbitration over public records requests. The department is showing disrespect for the law of the land, and it should stop.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell should remind her deputies that the open government process that Congress established was not intended to be a suggestion and instruct her FOIA officers to engage with OGIS immediately. And the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy should remind all federal agencies that Congress established OGIS to improve the FOIA process.

Ignoring the efforts of OGIS staff trying to do their jobs undermines the president’s Open Government Directive and should not be sanctioned by this or any administration.