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Government slower under open-records law

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Federal agencies are taking longer to answer requests for records but provide fully responsive documents nearly nine out of 10 times, a congressional study says.

The number of Freedom of Information Act requests carried over from year to year has risen 43% since 2002, the Government Accountability Office reported to a House subcommittee yesterday.

And the problem appears to be worsening. The increase in holdover requests was 24% from 2004 to 2005, compared with 11% from 2003 to 2004.

The GAO found the median, or midpoint, time for processing requests varied greatly among agencies: from less than 10 days to more than 100 days.

Part of the disparity may be explained by the requests' complexity, something not measured by the statistics, said Linda Koontz, the GAO's director of information-management issues.

Koontz said agencies reported that responsive records were provided in full in 87% of the requests processed in 2005.

The House Government Reform subcommittee on government management held its second hearing on the ability of federal agencies to follow the Freedom of Information Act — which is 40 years old this month. The panel's initial session in May 2005 was the first time in five years the House had held a hearing on how well the law was working.

The panel is also following progress of a presidential order of last December that required agencies to improve administration of the law, designate chief FOIA officers and establish in-house FOIA centers to receive requests.

"Federal departments and agencies are operating in the post 9/11 information age and face 21st Century security, information management and resource challenges," said Rep. Todd Russell Platts, R-Pa.

Tonda Rush, representing the National Newspaper Association and the Sunshine in Government Initiative, said the open-records law "has become less reliable, less effective and a less timely vehicle for informing the public of government activities and newsworthy stories."

The association represents owners, publishers and editors of 2,500 community newspapers and the Sunshine Initiative is composed of nine news organizations including the Associated Press.

Rush said only Congress could make the most-pressing improvements that the act needs: lack of alternatives to litigation to resolve disputes; lack of incentives for agencies to speed responses, and excessive court costs caused by unwarranted denials.

She proposed that an independent mediator handle FOIA appeals, a concept that has worked in several states.

Platts asked two congressional witnesses — both sponsors of a stronger law — the most serious problem with administration of the act.

"The recent trend creating exceptions is a mistake," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "We should be doing just the opposite."

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, cited the failure of agencies to meet deadlines and the lack of consequences for failure to respond.

House panel urged to boost FOIA
Media witnesses join lawmakers in outlining need to revamp law to ensure flow of information isn't blocked by reluctant — or overly secretive — bureaucrats. 05.12.05


Bush signs order to speed FOIA requests

President directs federal agencies to be more efficient in dealing with calls for government data, but leaves in place 4-year-old policy that restricts access. 12.15.05

Agencies missing FOIA deadlines, AP finds

Public waiting longer for documents as federal response time lags.
  • Sunshine Week '06 at a glance
  • 03.13.06

    President's open-records order: working or worse?
    By Eugenia Harris Panelists debate whether effect of executive order helps or hinders freedom of information. 03.16.06

    FOIA bill advances but unlikely to pass this year
    House panel unanimously approves measure, adding provision to revoke two presidential memos that directed agencies to withhold info when release would threaten national security. 09.28.06

    House panel mulls ways to bolster FOIA
    ACLU official urges subcommittee to scrap White House's 'policy of nondisclosure,' while another witness advises lawmakers to create open-records ombudsman. 02.17.07

    Senator stalls FOI bill, drawing ire of open-government backers
    Arizona Republican Jon Kyl raises objections to measure that would plug loopholes in Freedom of Information Act. 06.01.07

    Study: FOIA requests plagued by delays
    New National Security Archive report finds those seeking data from federal agencies continue to encounter long delays despite 2005 order by President Bush to clear unanswered backlog. 07.04.07

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