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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

White House office deleting its FOIA regulations

WASHINGTON — The White House is removing a federal regulation that subjects its Office of Administration to the Freedom of Information Act, making official a policy under Presidents Bush and Obama to reject requests for records to that office.

The White House said the cleanup of FOIA regulations is consistent with court rulings that hold that the office is not subject to the transparency law. The office handles, among other things, White House record-keeping duties like the archiving of e-mails.

But the timing of the move raised eyebrows among transparency advocates, coming on National Freedom of Information Day and during a national debate over the preservation of Obama administration records. It's also Sunshine Week, an effort by news organizations and watchdog groups to highlight issues of government transparency.

"The irony of this being Sunshine Week is not lost on me," said Anne Weismann of the liberal Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW.

"It is completely out of step with the president's supposed commitment to transparency," she said. "That is a critical office, especially if you want to know, for example, how the White House is dealing with e-mail."

In a notice to be published in Tuesday's Federal Register, the White House says it's removing regulations on how the Office of Administration complies with Freedom of Information Act Requests based on "well-settled legal interpretations."

The rule change means that there will no longer be a formal process for the public to request that the White House voluntarily disclose records as part of what's known as a "discretionary disclosure."

Records released by the Office of Administration voluntarily include White House visitor logs and the recipe for beer brewed at the White House.

"You have a president who comes in and says, I'm committed to transparency and agencies should make discretionary disclosures whenever possible, but he's not applying that to his own White House," Weismann said.

The White House did not explain why it waited nearly six years to formally acknowledge the court ruling in its regulations. 

In the notice to be published Tuesday, the White House said it was not allowing a 30-day public comment period, and so the rule will be final.

"It's a little tone deaf to do this on Sunshine Week, even if it's an administrative housecleaning," said Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government initiative for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The bigger issue, Blum said, is that the Office of Administration is itself responsible for presidential
record-keeping. Given the controversy over former secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's use of a personal e-mail account to conduct official business, there ought to be more scrutiny of record-keeping practices, he said.   (Full Story at USA Today) 

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