A federal judge rebuked the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday for discriminating against a conservative group, saying the agency was either lying or apathetic in its response to a request made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
In a blistering 25-page opinion, Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia said that although the Landmark Legal Foundation—a conservative public interest law firm—had not sufficiently proven that the EPA acted in bad faith against it to be awarded punitive damages, the EPA has been “offensively unapologetic” and “continues to demonstrate a lack of respect for the FOIA process.”
“It is obvious to this Court that EPA has, once again, fumbled its way through its legally unambiguous FOIA obligations,” Lamberth wrote.
In 2012, the Landmark Legal Foundation filed a FOIA request with the EPA seeking communications between senior agency officials and outside groups to determine whether the EPA postponed controversial regulations until after the 2012 election.
However, the EPA performed inadequate searches of senior officials’ email accounts—including then-Administrator Lisa Jackson and deputy administrator Robert Perciasepe—and initially failed to search Jackson’s personal email account and Blackberry, even though she frequently used both to perform government business. Jackson’s Blackberry was scrubbed after she resigned from the agency in February 2013.
“Either EPA intentionally sought to evade Landmark’s lawful FOIA request so the agency could destroy responsive documents, or EPA demonstrated apathy and carelessness toward Landmark’s request,” Lamberth said. “Either scenario reflects poorly upon EPA and surely serves to diminish the public’s trust in the agency.”
Conservative critics hammered the agency for its lack of transparency after it was discovered that Jackson used a pseudonymous EPA email account under the name Richard Windsor to conduct government business. The groups have accused the EPA of bias against conservative organizations when handling FOIA requests.
“The recurrent instances of disregard that EPA employees display for FOIA obligations should not be tolerated by the agency,” Lamberth continued. “This court would implore the executive branch to take greater responsibility in ensuring that all EPA FOIA requests—regardless of the political affiliation of the requester—are treated with equal respect and conscientiousness.”
In a statement to the Washington Times, a spokesman for the EPA said the agency “is focused on creating more efficient work processes to ensure FOIA responses are done more effectively and at a lower cost. That includes adopting industry concept and best practices into the delivery of information technology services in areas such as cloud computing, mobile technology and workplace standards.”