Editorial: Feds promote openness from behind a wall

Mar. 06, 2014 @ 11:16 PM

Seven months and 15 days.

That’s how long it took for the federal government to respond to a Freedom Of Information Act request sent by The Mountain Press last July regarding a Hatch Act investigation in Sevier County.

While the story itself was fairly mild — the sheriff was incorrectly distributing campaign items on government property — the implications of this FOIA request are disturbing.

You see, after waiting 230 days, The Mountain Press — Sevier County’s newspaper of record — was told ‘No’ by the feds.

In a time when the invasion of the privacy of everyday citizens — by the government itself — is routine, what is the government hiding behind in deny to release records in the case? You guessed it — personal privacy.

When the case first came to our attention nearly a year ago, it was by way of a photograph of a letter sent to the sheriff and a complainant. The letter advised the sheriff that he’d broken the Hatch Act by offering campaign material at the sheriff’s department.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel essentially let the sheriff off with a warning, noting it shouldn’t happen again.

We couldn’t base a story solely on the photograph alone. Photos, after all, can be doctored. So we called the U.S. Office of Special Counsel to try and confirm that they’d sent the sheriff such a letter.

They balked at divulging the information. So a Freedom Of Information request was filed to get a copy of the letter.

In the meantime, a Knoxville media outlet that had been sent the same email broke the story, without getting comment from either of the parties that were sent the letter and without mention of any confirmation by the OSC.

After that, the sheriff confirmed to us that, yes, he’d been warned not to continue the practice. He then supplied The Mountain Press a copy of his own letter. The paper also reached the complainant after the story broke.

Our own story was filed away and the FOIA request was essentially forgotten. Until a denial email came Thursday.

“Without written consent, proof of death, official acknowledgment of an investigation, or an overriding public interest,” the notice read, “confirming or denying the existence of law enforcement records concerning an individual could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy ... Thus, OSC must decline to confirm or deny whether the requested records exist.”

How a duly-elected public official being sent a letter by the federal government noting that he was violating a law is not “an overriding public interest” is beyond us.

We’ll appeal the decision, of course, though only on the grounds that the such information should be public. The story, by this point, is old news.

A bill that would help avoid just such circumstances unanimously passed the U.S. House of Representatives this February.

“(FOIA requests) remain the principal vehicle through which the American people can access information generated by their government,” Representative Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said when introducing the bill last March. “The ... bill is designed to strengthen transparency by ensuring that legislative and executive action to improve FOIA over the past two decades is fully implemented by federal agencies.”

Elijah Cummings, D-Md., a ranking member of the committee, agreed.

“This bill strengthens FOIA, our most important open government law, and makes clear that the government should operate with a presumption of openness and not one of secrecy,” Cummings said.

Hopefully the appeal goes our way, and hopefully the bill passes the Senate and becomes law.

As it stands, when it comes to transparency, the federal government talks a good game.

In practice, it fails — miserably.