Under the Freedom of Information Act, a government agency can’t charge a news organization for any cost associated with producing documents it requests, other than per-page photocopy charges after printing 100 pages.
But the U.S. Department of Labor initially demanded that the Associated Press hand over $1 million when it requested a list of “secret” government email addresses surreptitiously being used by several of President Barack Obama’s political appointees, ostensibly because coming up with the information would cost the government a lot of money, time and resources.
The AP, undoubtedly still smarting over being secretly surveiled by the Department of Justice, released news of the Labor Department’s million-dollar demand in a Wednesday story on the larger phenomenon of Federal agencies using off-the-public-grid email addresses as a way to communicate important information without inbox clutter – as well as in secret. The AP has discovered secret email addresses within both the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) – though it admits there may be others among the 10 agencies that haven’t yet turned over their full email lists for public inspection.
The AP also challenged the government’s contention that communications using the secret addresses are, as a matter of practice, included in the dragnet of information that’s gathered whenever someone (like the AP) requests public records. It tried, but found only one instance when that claim was borne out. Additionally, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius’ non-public email address returns zero hits in Google searches, and even Congressional oversight committee leaders say they’ve never been privy to the secret email addresses.
All of which gets back to the Labor Department’s very illegal demand for a million bucks from a newsgathering organization. The Department later relented and called the demand a “mistake.” White House watcher Keith Koffler called it a shakedown.
In the latest blow to the Obama administration’s claim to be the “openness administration,” word emerged today that the Department of Labor sought to charge a news organization more than $1 million for information.
…[I]t would appear demanding such and exorbitant sum to drum up a few email addresses may amount to an effort to create a barrier to the release of information.
The episode suggests that the failure to appreciate the role of the press extends well beyond the White House, which bullies reporters to suppress the news, and the Justice Department, which makes them subject to criminal inquiry for collecting information. It is one of the cardinal rules of journalism that you don’t pay for information, particularly not a sum like $1 million.
Such obstructionist actions are more than obviously illegal and heavy-handed. They suggest that Obama and his key appointees, scattered across more than a dozen Federal agencies, are hiding something. And the daily revelations that are emerging from the Administration’s recent scandals, cover-ups and power abuses only serve to heighten that suspicion.