Obama Spent Record $36 Million Fighting FOIA Suits

Watchdog says previous admin 'was an enemy of transparency' and 'secrecy is expensive'

by Kathryn Blackhurst | Updated 15 Mar 2017 at 7:39 AM

Former President Obama’s administration spent a record-shattering $36.2 million on legal costs beating back Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, according to an analysis from the Associated Press.

Obama, who once hailed his administration as “the most transparent administration in history,” fielded a record-breaking influx of 788,769 FOIA requests last year alone and spent $478 million answering those requests. A whopping $36.2 million was spent fighting to keep federal records from the public eye.

“President Obama’s administration was an enemy of transparency, not a proponent.”

“President Obama’s administration was an enemy of transparency, not a proponent,” Tom Fitton, president of the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, told LifeZette. “All the secrecy is expensive, so it’s no surprise that the numbers are what they are.”

The Obama administration employed 4,263 full-time employees to handle the requests FOIA filed last year — a number that far exceeded the 142 full-time employees the previous year.

As the AP noted, the administration set a record for the second consecutive year of times that “federal employees told citizens, journalists and others that despite searching they couldn’t find a single page of files that were requested.” The administration also set dismal records for “outright denial of access to files, refusing to quickly consider requests described as especially newsworthy, and forcing people to pay for records who had asked the government to waive search and copy fees.”

The federal government is required by law to provide full or partial information previously undisclosed when requested via FOIA, with several categorical exemptions. Of the $36.2 million spent in resisting FOIA requests, the Justice Department, Department of Homeland Security, and Pentagon accounted for $12 million, $6.3 million and $4.8 million, respectively.

According to Fitton, the FOIA requests related to former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state contributed significantly to the administration’s legal costs last year.

“Some of those numbers are obviously caused by the lawlessness around Mrs. Clinton’s email usage and the ‘defend at any cost’ approach the Obama administration had in court over those issues,” Fitton said. “There are political reasons for not wanting to be transparent because sometimes the government agencies … often do either stupid or corrupt things or both. And who wants to be transparent about that if you’re a political appointee responsible for it?”

According to Fitton, Clinton “upended” the FOIA laws “just to keep all of her emails secret.”

The Justice Department, which typically deploys its lawyers to represent the various federal agencies over FOIA lawsuits, has a tendency to “defend everything seemingly that the agencies want to do in terms of withholding and just ignoring the FOIA,” Fitton said.

“The Justice Department should maybe be on the side of the requests and say, ‘Hey, yeah — this request is right. So you’ve got to turn the documents over. And we’re going to facilitate that,'” Fitton said. “The government doesn’t like being transparent. No one likes being transparent in the federal government … so to get the agencies to focus on that appropriately is difficult.”

Fitton blasted Obama’s claim to have run the “most transparent administration in history” as simply “what the American people expect to hear.”

“Is he going to say, ‘We are the most illegally secretive administration in American history’? Of course not,” Fitton said. “It’s a category of professions, bureaucrats and politicians, and we expect them to be transparent. And obviously they don’t like that and they don’t want to do that.”

Now that President Donald Trump has been in office for almost two months, he has an opportunity to reverse Obama’s lack of transparency and facilitate government responsiveness and accountability, Fitton noted.

Fitton said he hopes the Trump administration will be more responsive to FOIA requests — including the outstanding lawsuit holdovers from his predecessor’s administration. But thus far into the Trump administration, Fitton hasn’t seen much of a reversal of what he dubbed the “deep state” mindset.

"You know, problematically though, transparency — the kind of stonewalling approach to transparency — hasn't yet changed under President Trump, for instance," Fitton said. "There's been no change in any legal decisions by the State Department or Justice Department on Mrs. Clinton's email … the Trump administration hasn't really changed that, hasn't taken a new approach on transparency yet."

"So we're still, as far as we can tell — it's the Obama approach … The Obama way is still holding sway across the federal government," Fitton added.

If Trump truly wants to usher in a new era of transparency and reverse the Obama administration's lack of transparency, Fitton suggests that he apply the same approach he's already taken with his immigration enforcement policies.

"Start complying with the law. It's just like immigration. He started actually enforcing the immigration laws," Fitton said. "Let's have the Justice Department start enforcing the Freedom of Information Act rather than using the agency to defend the indefensible, which is what it does."

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