The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is denying an allegation by a top Associated Press journalist that the agency has politicized the handling of requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). “FOIA requests are handled by career staff,” Kevin Griffis, an HHS spokesman, told the Erik Wemple Blog in a brief interview on Friday.
Griffis was responding to a much-shared AP post summarizing “8 ways the Obama administration is blocking information,” an inventory of press restrictions compiled by AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee and presented at a meeting of the American Society of News Editors, the Associated Press Media Editors and the Associated Press Photo Managers. Under obstruction No. 7, Buzbee alleged, “The administration uses FOIAs as a tip service to uncover what news organizations are pursuing. Requests are now routinely forwarded to political appointees. At the agency that oversees the new health care law, for example, political appointees now handle the FOIA requests.” (Italics in original)
“That is categorically false,” says Griffis. HHS’s Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is responsible for administering Obamacare’s Healthcare.gov.
AP has played an aggressive role in watchdogging federal agencies on records requests. In this 2010 story, for instance, the wire service documents political footsie with FOIA at the Department of Homeland Security, a practice that it ended after the AP’s snooping. And just last month, it reported on the flimsy rationale offered by HHS for denying a FOIA request for records on the “kinds of security software and computer systems behind the federally funded Healthcare.gov.” That story doesn’t allege that the FOIA request was routed to political appointees.
However, this page on the HHS site notes that the department’s chief FOIA officer is Acting Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Dori Salcido; she is a political appointee.
Case closed for the AP? Not so quick, says an HHS official. Though Salcido is identified on the site as the FOIA chief, document requests are supervised by a career employee, says the official.
The department’s assistant secretary for public affairs (ASPA) has been the FOIA chief at least since 1998, the official indicates. During the George W. Bush administration, however, the ASPA decided that FOIA appeals should be signed by a non-political appointee, a function that until that time was handled by a political appointee. A career staffer at the HHS public affairs office now signs off on FOIA appeals decisions. Salcido, says the official, isn’t involved in day-to-day FOIA processing.
UPDATE 5:10 p.m.: AP spokesman Paul Colford writes in with a paragraph taking issue with HHS:
AP has had to deal directly with Ms. Salcido on some FOIA-related matters. She is identified on some HHS responses to AP’s own FOIA requests as the FOIA administrative appeals officer, meaning that she is the last line of defense for reporters to argue their case. Moreover, we’ve talked to Ms. Salcido on FOIA-related issues. In one instance last year, as deputy assistant secretary for public affairs (Media), she would adjudicate our administrative appeal of an HHS decision – that’s what we were told in a letter.