A government watchdog group announced Monday that it is suing a dozen federal agencies for improperly delaying Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for White House review.
Cause of Action is suing 10 cabinet agencies, as well as the Internal Revenue Service and White House Office of Management and Budget, for failing to release documents regarding how the White House reviews agency FOIA requests.
Cause of Action uncovered an April 2009 White House memo that instructed federal agencies to consult with White House Office of General Counsel on "all document requests that may involve documents with White House equities."
Seeking more information, the watchdog group filed FOIA requests with numerous federal agencies for their policies on White House equities. The agencies named in the lawsuit delayed responding to the watchdog by eight months—and some as long as 14 months—according to the lawsuit.
Cause of Action alleges that the White House review amounts to an improper effort to block and delay FOIA requests.
"The phrase ‘White House equities’ was and still is not defined by the White House or other authority, but federal FOIA officials have reported that agencies consult with the White House when requested records are politically sensitive or embarrassing to the Administration," the complaint states.
As previously reported by the Washington Free Beacon, the practice of reviewing FOIA requests with White House materials has been standard since the Reagan administration, but Cause of Action argues the scope of review has been expanded under the Obama administration.
In a 1993 memo, the Department of Justice recommended that the practice only be applied to documents that originated from the White House.
An anonymous FOIA officer at a federal agency made similar claims in an interview with the Washington Times earlier this year.
"Under the Obama administration, I am personally aware of multiple cases [including those in litigation] in which records were sent to the White House because they dealt with a politically hot topic," the official told the Washington Times. "The records did not originate from or even mention the White House."
The Treasury Inspector General wrote in a 2013 report on White House reviews that "none of the document sets we reviewed appeared to originate with the White House."
A Cause of Action study in March, based on records obtained from four federal agencies, found that at least 18 FOIA requests were sent to the White House for review between 2012 and 2013.
Documents show the White House reviewed FOIA requests by investigative journalists such as Brad Heath from USA Today, Russ Ptacek from WUSA9, Jennifer Peebles from the Washington Examiner, and Scott MacFarlane from Cox Media.
One White House review delayed response to a FOIA request by a Los Angeles Times reporter by at least two years.
"Accountable and transparent government does not involve instructing agencies to send politically sensitive records to the White House for review," Cause of Action executive director Dan Epstein said in a statement. "The bureaucracy has violated the law by stonewalling the public’s access to documents for political reasons."
In a statement to the Washington Post, the White House said President Barack Obama is "committed to a transparent and open government and has taken unprecedented steps to ensure that members of the public have access to information."