By David Brand
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request can be an attorney or a reporter’s best resource. But problems when a government agency — or agency chief — deliberately obstruct the release of information.
Enter CUNY School of Law Professor Sarah Lamdan, CUNY Law Center for Urban and Environmental Reform Director Rebecca Bratspies and Newmark Graduate School of Journalism Professor Dale Willman.
Amid of torrent of environmental disinformation, climate change denial and data opacity, Lamdan, Bratspies and Willman have organized a day-long workshop on Saturday, Nov. 3 for attorneys, journalists and environmental advocates to learn how to attain the documents and records they seek.
The event, entitled “Environmental FOIA in the Age of Trump,” will take place from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at CUNY Law. At the event, prominent attorneys, activists and journalists will lead workshops and breakout sessions help citizens understand FOIA.
The event is important because the information-gathering landscape has changed significantly in the past two years, Lamdan said.
When Lamdan began writing her 2016 book “Environmental Information: Research, Access and Environmental Decisionmaking” she said there were far fewer challenges to obtaining environmental information from the federal government using FOIA requests.
“It was a sweet and idealistic time,” Lamdan said. “And then [the 2016 election] happened and I became swept up in the data rescue effort.”
Fear of an information purge prompted attorneys and environmental advocates to file FOIA requests in order to preserve Environmental Protection Agency data after Donald Trump’s inauguration. In the first few months of Trump’s presidency, government agencies began removing vital data from their websites and budget cuts threatened record-keeping and record-sharing staff and resources.
Though Lamdan and Bratspies said that FOIA requests and litigation related to environmental records have increased in the past two years, the information has often been slow-walked or outright blocked by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Especially when [Scott] Pruitt was head of the EPA, it was impossible to get anything. There was a bottleneck,” Lamdan said.
In July, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D - Maryland) urged the House Oversight Committee to subpoena the EPA and compel the agency to explain how it reviewed FOIA requests, Politico reported.
"Under your tenure, EPA's front office is now responding more slowly, withholding more information, and rejecting more requests, according to EPA's own data and independent sources," Cummings wrote in a letter to Pruitt. "Combined with your refusal to produce documents requested by Congress, your actions in delaying records under FOIA raise concerns about a fundamental lack of transparency at EPA."
EPA officials revealed that Pruitt subjected FOIA requests to political review in violation of federal information laws.
Ultimately, FOIA requests were Pruitt’s undoing. Emails released to the Sierra Club in response to a FOIA request revealed that Pruitt had contacted the CEO of Chick-fil-A to discuss securing a job for his wife. The request violated federal law related to abuse of power by cabinet members.
A month after the release of those Chick-fil-A emails, Pruitt resigned from the EPA.
Unlike the federal government, New York State has been generally amenable to FOIA requests, said Bratspies, who has written three books and several articles about environmental law and information-gathering.
Nevertheless, she said, the squeaky FOIA filer gets the grease.
“The state has been responsive,” Bratspies said. “But you have to stay on the case. Persistence is key.”
In New York City, obtaining information through Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests can be a long and frustrating experience. City agencies promptly acknowledge receipt of a request but can take months or years to release the desired information.
In June, City Limits reported on the “skeleton staff” who make up the FOIL staff at many city agencies.
While the Department of Environmental Protection employs 28 FOIL staff members — the most of any city agency by far — several others, including the Department of City Planning, NYC Health + Hospitals and the New York City Emergency Management employ just one person to handle information requests.