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Looking for needles in a federal haystack

Joseph Westphal, undersecretary of the Army, and Robert O. Work, undersecretary of the Navy, during the House Armed Services hearing on managing the Defense Department under budget constraints. (Scott J. Ferrell)

And now, a journey into the sometimes surreal world of the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. The law can be a powerful tool for the public and the news 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.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

The obvious problem, of course, is that unless you know an investigation report is out there, you won’t know to ask for 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 was released 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.”

Producer Colleen Bell has been nominated as ambassador to Hungary. (Getty Images)

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.

A cliffhanger no more

Television producer Colleen Bell — an Obama mega-bundler best known for the Hollywood soap “The Bold and the Beautiful” — has finally been nominated to be ambassador to Hungary.

We reported in May that the move was coming “soon.” Okay, so it’s been five months, but these days that passes for warp speed for the Obama administration.

Bell is headed to a country with somewhat rocky relations with Washington, thanks to the anti-democratic antics of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. His policies sparked a rebuke from former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Some observers in Hungary had hoped that, after a long string of inexperienced political donors, going back a couple decades, this time they might get a seasoned diplomat in Budapest. Well, you never know.

President Obama, as expected, also tapped Army Undersecretary Joe Westphal, the Army’s second-highest ranking civilian, to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Westphal is a former political science professor and university chancellor and had been assistant secretary of the Army for civil works back in the Clinton administration. Washington lawyer Janice Schneider, a senior aide at the Interior Department in the Clinton administration, was picked to be assistant secretary for lands and minerals management at Interior. Madelyn Creedon, assistant secretary of defense for global strategic affairs and previously a deputy administrator for defense programs at the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, is headed back to be principal deputy administrator at the NNSA.

Trolls, beware

It was just a year ago that Michelle Lee, an intellectual-property lawyer at tech giant Google for nine years, left to become director of a new U.S. Patent and Trademark Office “satellite” operation in Silicon Valley.

Now, after absorbing what must have been a stunning salary drop, there’s talk that the Silicon Valley native may be on the move again, this time to Washington to run the entire USPTO. Lee has been a staunch advocate of reform to battle frivolous lawsuits by “patent trolls.”

Another name that had been mentioned for the job was Teresa Stanek Rea, undersecretary of commerce and deputy USPTO director. Rea was named acting director of the office after David Kappos resigned in February, but she announced in September that she would be leaving the deputy directorship.

With Emily Heil

The blog:
inthe loop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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