The agency has rubber-stamped fee-waiver requests from environmentalist groups seeking information, but it denied similar requests from conservative groups, an extensive examination of EPA correspondence suggests. It’s the latest instance in which federal agencies have used their executive authority against perceived political opponents.
Public information about government can be obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. If a requester plans to use the information to improve public understanding about a policy issue or government operations, rather than putting it to commercial use, Congress has decided that the fees for collecting and transmitting this public information can be waived.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute obtained 1,200 pages of EPA correspondence between January 1, 2012, and April 26, 2013, in circumstances that appear to indicate the process is handled unfairly. A congressional review of these documents showed that environmental groups’ fee-waiver requests were approved 92 percent of the time, while CEI saw 93 percent of its fee-waiver requests denied. Only 8 percent of the total number of FOIA fee waivers granted went to conservative think tanks; their requests were denied 73 percent of the time. (Full disclosure: My employer, the Franklin Center, is one of the conservative groups whose requests were examined.)
Alisha Johnson, an EPA spokeswoman, would not answer specific questions about the statistics that suggest disparate treatment. “We make FOIA waiver determinations based on legal requirements, and these are consistently applied to all fee-waiver requests, so those determinations are not based on the identity of the reporter or the requester in general,” she says. Johnson added that EPA planned to review its criteria to “ensure that our FOIA process remains fair and transparent.”
But Chris Horner, a senior fellow at CEI and one of the central players in the controversy, says the records he has obtained, as well as his personal experience, have suggested the EPA has been “throwing what can be tremendous, even fatal, hurdles in the way to impede people that they don’t like. [The fees] can go up into the six figures. . . . This gets pretty nasty.”
Republican senators Charles Grassley (Iowa), James Inhofe (Okla.), and David Vitter (La.), along with representative Darrell Issa (Calif.), voiced concerns this week about the implications of FOIA fee-waiver favoritism in a letter to the EPA’s acting administrator, Bob Perciasepe.
“This disparate treatment is unacceptable, especially in light of the recent controversy over abusive tactics at the Internal Revenue Service, which singled out conservative groups for special scrutiny,” the legislators write, adding that “the startling disparity in treatment strongly suggests EPA’s actions are possibly part of a broader effort to collude with groups that share the agency’s political agenda and discriminate against states and conservative organizations.”
The four Republican legislators have asked the EPA to submit by May 31 all fee-waiver requests since Obama took office so they can be reviewed, says Luke Bolar, the communications director for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
But according to several sources, the EPA’s transparency problem isn’t limited to fee waivers. They say the agency has also stalled on public-information requests from conservative groups and business groups. And when the EPA does fulfill a request, it heavily redacts information, they say.