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House targets what critics call Obama’s lack of openness

WASHINGTON – A new congressional report contends that the freedom of information process under President Barack Obama’s administration is broken and legislation approved under the Republican-controlled House this week aims to help fix it.

The bipartisan bill – supported by the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and approved on a voice vote in the U.S. House – would require federal agencies to acknowledge that government records are presumed to be open unless there would be “foreseeable harm” in releasing them, or there is a specific legal requirement to deny access to them.

The bill also would prohibit agencies from charging fees for access to records in cases in which the agencies have missed the deadline for responding to requests. The bill would require agencies to publicly post documents already released to at least three individual FOIA requesters. The legislation now goes to the Senate.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee recently released a report saying the backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests has more than doubled since Obama took office in 2009.

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“When President Obama took office, he promised an ‘unprecedented level of openness in government.’ This report demonstrates that is not the case,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of oversight panel, told The Associated Press.

Not surprisingly, White House press secretary Josh Earnest had a different take, saying more than 91 percent of FOIA requests have resulted in disclosure of some or all of the information requested.

“We feel like we’ve got a pretty strong record,” Earnest told reporters this week. “In fiscal year 2014, the administration processed 647,142 FOIA requests. That number of letters doesn’t get responded to unless you’re serious about trying to fulfill your responsibility to run the most transparent government in history.”

“LAND-GRAB SCHEME”: While much of the country – or at least on Facebook – seems to be snickering at the anti-government folks occupying a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, Sen. Martin Heinrich is not amused.

The freshman Democratic senator wrote to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch this week urging the U.S. Justice Department to prosecute those who have broken laws in the siege.

“Unfortunately, the attack on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is only the latest effort in a growing campaign by anti-government interests to seize and sell off the American people’s public lands,” Sen. Heinrich wrote in the letter. “I am concerned that the absence of federal prosecution after similar events in the past, such as the 2014 standoff near Bunkerville, Nevada, may have emboldened these individuals to seize federal property in the Malheur standoff. There must be consequences for this sort of dangerous action.

“Like most Westerners I value our shared lands as assets to be enjoyed, used responsibly, and passed on to future generations,” Heinrich said. “I find the latest Bundy land-grab scheme deeply disturbing. When you use armed intimidation to take over lands and property that belong to the American people, that’s not ‘taking back’ anything. It’s just stealing.”

Michael Coleman: mcoleman@abqjournal.com

 

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