A federal judge Monday blasted the Environmental Protection Agency for its “suspicious” handling of a 2012 Freedom of Information Act request by a conservative group for top officials’ e-mails, saying the agency left “far too much room” for the public to suspect official misconduct.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth said that while he would not impose sanctions because the Landmark Legal Foundation had not established that the EPA acted in bad faith, the agency either intentionally sought to evade the FOIA request in order to destroy documents or demonstrated extreme apathy and carelessness.
“Either scenario reflects poorly upon EPA and surely serves to diminish the public’s trust,” wrote Lamberth, former chief judge of the federal court of the District. In a 25-page opinion, Lamberth called the EPA’s recurring disregard of public information disclosure obligations “offensively unapologetic” but “more consistent with ineptitude.”
He added, “This Court would implore the Executive Branch to take greater responsibility in ensuring that all EPA FOIA requests — regardless of the political affiliation of the requester — are treated with equal respect and conscientiousness.”
The foundation is a conservative public interest law firm led by Mark R. Levin, a talk radio host and former chief of staff to Edwin Meese III, attorney general under President Ronald Reagan. It requested EPA documents in August 2012, seeking to learn whether top agency officials were systematically delaying enacting rules until after that fall’s presidential elections.
Then-EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson announced her resignation that December but not until after congressional Republicans and watchdog groups hammered agency leaders for using pseudonymous or private e-mail accounts to conduct official business. Jackson used an EPA account under the name “Richard Windsor,” for instance, apparently derived from the names of her dog and her home town.
Lamberth said the foundation failed to uncover evidence that the EPA postponed rules. Still, he wrote, the EPA perceived Landmark “as an enemy,” and FOIA officers and top aides to Jackson and her deputy, Robert Perciasepe, did not search their accounts until after the election, then did so cursorily until facing a court-ordered deadline. The agency apparently never searched for e-mails of the EPA’s chief of staff.
Similarly, the EPA did not initially search the administrator or deputy’s personal e-mail accounts or BlackBerry devices and erased Jackson’s BlackBerry after her February 2013 departure.
The ruling “confirmed what we have been saying for two years — that the EPA obstructed, delayed and destroyed public information about its regulatory activities,” Levin said. “This is basic information the public should have about rule-making and potential influences on that rule-making.”
Lamberth urged the EPA to consider instructing employees who conduct any agency business using personal accounts not to delete such e-mails and to forward them to their EPA accounts.
EPA press secretary Liz Purchia said the agency was “pleased the court denied the motion for sanctions,” adding that the “EPA is focused on creating more efficient work processes to ensure FOIA responses are done more effectively and at a lower cost.”