Obama aides chas­tised for acts against Ju­di­cial Watch

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY STEPHEN DINAN

Po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives within the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion wrongly pun­ished con­ser­va­tive le­gal group Ju­di­cial Watch, strip­ping it of “me­dia” sta­tus and try­ing to force it to pay higher fees for its open records re­quests, the Gen­eral Ser­vices Ad­min­is­tra­tion in­spec­tor gen­eral said in a let­ter re­leased Thurs­day.

The GSA botched sev­eral high-pro­file open records re­quests, de­lay­ing them for months while po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees got in­volved, In­spec­tor Gen­eral Carol F. Ochoa said. The find­ings were re­leased while the ad­min­is­tra­tion was fac­ing charges of slowwalk­ing open records re­quests for Hil­lary Clinton’s emails, as well as other re­quests.

In the case of Ju­di­cial Watch, the or­der to strip it of me­dia sta­tus came from po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives with long ties to Demo­cratic causes — and even from the White House.

The in­spec­tor gen­eral said the de­ci­sion came at the be­hest of Gre­gory Mecher, a for­mer Demo­cratic cam­paign fundraiser who at the time was li­ai­son to the White House. He is mar­ried to Jen Psaki, a long­time spokes­woman with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and its elec­tion cam­paigns.

Ms. Ochoa said strip­ping Ju­di­cial Watch of me­dia sta­tus vi­o­lated sev­eral agency poli­cies and things got worse when the GSA de­nied an ap­peal by the group.

The same per­son who ruled on the ini­tial re­quest also ruled on the ap­peal, “con­trary to GSA pro­ce­dures,” the in­spec­tor gen­eral said.

Ju­di­cial Watch ended up su­ing over the re­quest, the agency fi­nally agreed to waive all fees and even ended up pay­ing Ju­di­cial Watch $750 as part of the set­tle­ment.

Tom Fit­ton, pres­i­dent of Ju­di­cial Watch, ques­tioned the agency’s de­ci­sion to fight a los­ing case that ended up cost­ing it money.

“It’s out­ra­geous but not sur­pris­ing. Wel­come to our world. This is what we put up with all the time from the agen­cies,” he said.

Pres­i­dent Obama promised an era of trans­parency when it came to open records re­quests un­der the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act, which is the chief way for Amer­i­cans to pry loose data from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

De­spite the pres­i­dent’s ex­hor­ta­tions, the gov­ern­ment is in­creas­ingly fight­ing re­quests, forc­ing the pub­lic to file law­suits to look at in­for­ma­tion.

Last year, the ad­min­is­tra­tion spent $31.3 mil­lion to fight FOIA cases — more than twice the $15.4 mil­lion the ad­min­is­tra­tion spent in 2008, the fi­nal year un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush.

The GSA has not been one of the ma­jor of­fend­ers, re­port­ing no FOIA le­gal spend­ing in 2015 and just $11,000 a year in 2014 and 2013, when it faced Ju­di­cial Watch’s law­suit and paid the $750 set­tle­ment.

That doesn’t mean the agency has been op­er­at­ing cleanly. In a 2010 let­ter, a pre­vi­ous in­spec­tor gen­eral said the agency botched a re­quest seek­ing in­for­ma­tion about GSA com­mu­ni­ca­tions with House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi and two other Democrats.

White House of­fi­cials got in­volved and fur­ther de­layed the re­quest, the in­spec­tor gen­eral said.

Ms. Ochoa said in her let­ter that she found three bun­gled cases in the five years since that 2010 in­ves­ti­ga­tion. A 2013 re­quest for records men­tion­ing Don­ald Trump — now the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee — took 242 days, five times the aver­age. A 2012 re­quest seek­ing in­for­ma­tion on GSA bonuses was blocked for 515 days.

The Ju­di­cial Watch re­quest, though, was the most strik­ing.

The group was try­ing to get a look at a goofy video pro­duced by the agency’s New York of­fice on com­pany time and us­ing com­pany re­sources. The GSA at the time was fac­ing fierce crit­i­cism from Capi­tol Hill for hav­ing wasted money on lav­ish con­fer­ences with ques­tion­able team-build­ing ac­tiv­i­ties such as the video.

Ju­di­cial Watch asked to be treated sim­i­lar to a mem­ber of the me­dia, which would mean an ex­emp­tion from fees. Two weeks ear­lier, Ju­di­cial Watch was ap­proved for the me­dia ex­emp­tion.

But ahead of the GSA re­quest, Mr. Mecher, the po­lit­i­cal ap­pointee with ties to the White House, re­quested that Ju­di­cial Watch’s sta­tus be re-ex­am­ined, in­ves­ti­ga­tors said. Elliot Mincberg, a lawyer with deep Demo­cratic ties who was on loan to the GSA at the time, is­sued a de­ter­mi­na­tion re­ject­ing Ju­di­cial Watch as a me­dia re­quester.

Ms. Ochoa said the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for that was weak — a page from a Jus­tice Depart­ment guide that pre­dated the cur­rent law gov­ern­ing the def­i­ni­tion of me­dia. Mr. Mincberg “did not con­duct any in­de­pen­dent le­gal re­search” about the 2007 law, and that “shows a lack of due dili­gence,” Ms. Ochoa con­cluded.

The GSA then failed to fol­low its own pro­ce­dures in its de­nial let­ter — de­spite in­ter­nal mis­giv­ings — and again in mis­han­dling the ap­peal, Ms. Ochoa wrote.

“Why are White House li­aisons in­volved in our FOIA re­quest?” said Mr. Fit­ton, the Ju­di­cial Watch pres­i­dent.

Mr. Mecher, who is now a top con­gres­sional staffer in the of­fice of Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, did not re­spond to an email seek­ing com­ment on his role.

Mr. Mincberg said in an email that he “per­formed a rel­a­tively mi­nor task” at Mr. Mecher’s re­quest but de­clined to elab­o­rate, say­ing he was act­ing at the time as an at­tor­ney for the agency and would need its ap­proval to speak more.

Mr. Mincberg had been lent to the GSA as a FOIA trou­bleshooter — though his ar­rival was met with skep­ti­cism. Ms. Ochoa re­ported that one se­nior lawyer emailed a col­league say­ing, “This will not end well.”

Later, Mr. Mincberg would run into trou­ble at the Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment, where he was a se­nior at­tor­ney.

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