Smokey Bear says: Only you can prevent government officials’ misconduct

November 7, 2013
(Dan De Luce/AFP/Getty Images
(Dan De Luce/AFP/Getty Images

And now, a journey into the sometimes surreal world of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  The law can be a powerful tool for the public and the media to discover all manner of mal- , mis- and nonfeasance by government agencies and officials. But using it can be a cumbersome and time-consuming process — errant officials may be long gone from government by the time you get the documents.

And getting inspector generals’ reports of  investigations of misconduct by senior officials can be even trickier. In fact, agencies may not release such reports unless you first file a FOIA request for them.

The obvious problem, of course,  is that unless you know an investigation report is out there, you won’t know to FOIA it. As a result, many IG reports simply “disappear into the mist,” one knowledgeable source noted.

Take our colleague Craig Whitlock’s  item Tuesday on an IG report on  Steven Calvery, director of the Pentagon’s police force, which found, among other things, that he had his staff fetch his coffee and lunch and gave paid leave to staffers to play golf. The report on the IG’s two-year investigation came out in February. Whitlock, after being tipped off about the report, filed a FOIA request April 2. He then waited seven months to get the info.

“The focus of a senior official investigation is to determine if there was misconduct on the part of the official involved and to provide that information to management to determine what correction action may be appropriate,” a DOD IG spokeswoman explained in an e-mail.  “Because such investigations involve information that may address the privacy concerns of the subject as well as witnesses and persons interviewed, reports of investigations frequently must be redacted extensively prior to release to the public.  It has been the long standing practice of our office to release these reports in response to FOIA requests.”

That tracks with FOIA procedures used by most agencies. But, FOIA experts acknowledge,  these are subjective balancing acts between privacy and the public’s right to know, and the conclusions vary from one inspector general to another. (On the other hand, a seven-month review for a simple report, we were told, “is outrageous.” )

One way to avoid the Franz Kafka world may be to do “an automatic FOIA request  every three months for a list of all closed investigations,” suggested Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University. “Then you have to decide which ones are worth going for.”

“Every IG should do an annual report listing all their inspections on behalf of the taxpayers, so any taxpayer can see the report,” Blanton said. “If you keep the reports secret, you lose the deterrent effect on future bad behaviors.”

So if you see something, hear something, you know we’re standing by: al.kamen@washpost.com; emily.heil@washpost.com

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993.
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Emily Heil · November 7, 2013