Don’t worry about how much tax money special counsel Robert Mueller wants for his investigation into allegations of collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian interests during the 2016 election.
It’s a secret.
That, at least, is the position of the Department of Justice (DOJ), which turned down a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the government accountability nonprofit Judicial Watch. Federal lawyers identified seven documents related to the organization’s request for records related to the budget proposal submitted by Mueller’s office.
Initially, DOJ sent Judicial Watch a copy of a previously published report showing Mueller’s office spent $3.2 million from May 17 to September 17 of last year. But the department told Judicial Watch that the budget request is protected by the FOIA’s disclosure exemption protecting “deliberative process privilege” and that disclosing it could interfere with law enforcement proceedings. That exemption is the most-frequently invoked by federal officials in FOIA cases.
“We have determined that this material should be withheld in full because it is protected from disclosure under the FOIA,” DOJ said.
Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton blasted DOJ and noted that his organization is pursuing multiple FOIA lawsuits related to government surveillance of President Donald Trump during the campaign and illegal disclosure of information pertaining to that surveillance.
“No argument can be made that a request for the release of budget numbers somehow interferes with his investigation.”
“Special counsel Mueller’s operation is not above the law,” Fitton said in a statement. “The American people have a right to know how much taxpayer money is planned for his massive investigation. No one else in D.C. seems to be providing oversight of the Mueller operation, so once again it is up to the citizen’s group Judicial Watch to go to fight for accountability.”
Judicial Watch’s announcement comes amid signs that Mueller’s investigation may be nearing an end. Several media outlets reported that his team has interviewed Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former FBI Director James Comey.
Trump told reporters Tuesday that he is not concerned about what Sessions told Mueller’s team. The Washington Post has reported that Mueller has sought to interview the president, but how, when or even if that conversation will take place has yet to be decided.
In addition to information about the budget, Judicial Watch also requested documents related to DOJ’s review of Mueller office’s statement of expenditures and how the department exercises management oversight of the operation.
So far, DOJ lawyers have ignored those requests, Judicial Watch said.
Other advocates of government transparency sharply criticized DOJ’s anti-disclosure stance.
“No argument can be made that a request for the release of budget numbers somehow interferes with his investigation,” said Peter Flaherty, president of the Virginia-based National Legal and Policy Center.
Flaherty said “Naderites” — a reference to left-wing consumer advocate Ralph Nader — wrote the FOIA law with a high bar to government secrecy. He said plaintiffs have a good track of winning FOIA lawsuits when they go to court.
The original FOIA was mainly authored by Rep. John Moss (D-Calif.) and co-sponsored by an obscure freshman Republican, Donald Rumsfeld of Michigan. Moss sought passage of the FOIA for 12 years before President Lyndon B. Johnson reluctantly signed it into law in 1966.
“The public is entitled to certain things,” Flaherty told LifeZette. “And the FOIA process can turn into a cat-and-mouse game.”
Flaherty said Mueller has a special obligation to be as open as possible given the controversy that has surrounded his operation. Those concerns include a staff of lawyers filled with Democratic donors and a prosecutor with a reputation for strong-armed tactics.
“With all the suspicion of Mueller and all the suspicion with his process, I would hope that the Department of Justice would be as forthcoming as possible,” Flaherty said.