Metro’s process of handling public information requests has come under scrutiny again, this time after one of D.C.’s best known gadflies took the unusual step of suing the transit agency.
Unsuck DC Metro, whose Twitter feed and blog have followed and sometimes criticized Metro’s every move since January 2009, filed a lawsuit Tuesday, saying the agency had improperly withheld records on a customer satisfaction survey.
The lawsuit — filed with assistance from Judicial Watch and first reported by NBC4 — says the agency not only stonewalled Unsuck DC Metro on the survey but also then charged $324.17 in fees for blacking out all but one of the pages Unsuck received. The agency said that to obtain the results of two pending searches, Unsuck would need to cough up the money first.
“All they did was go through and redact essentially every page but one and then bill Unsuck DC Metro for it,” said Michael Bekesha, an attorney handling the case for Judicial Watch. He said Wednesday that the sum was “excessive,” particularly since the fees were for processing, not making copies. “If all you’re doing is redacting everything but one page of information, it shouldn’t take that long.”
A Metro spokesman said the agency would not discuss pending litigation. Unsuck DC Metro, through Twitter, referred questions to Judicial Watch.
Metro’s general counsel oversees the agency’s release of records through its Public Access to Records Policy, or PARP, which resembles the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in its structure and procedures. In practice, critics say, the PARP process allows the agency to declare its commitment to transparency while often shielding Metro from public scrutiny.
Four years ago, for example, Metro quickly hired two public relations firms to help with image control following a fatal accident at L’Enfant Plaza in January 2015. When The Washington Post learned about the PR firms’ hiring, reporters were told they would have to file a PARP request to obtain the information.
Months passed, and just as Post reporters were preparing to write about the delay in obtaining information through PARP about the public relations campaign, Metro’s press office revealed that the two firms — Hill + Knowlton Strategies and O’Neill and Associates — had received $250,000 for a contract that ended about two months earlier. (Washington City Paper, which had also requested information about the contracts, accidentally received material it wasn’t supposed to get. Metro asked for it back, without success; City Paper wrote about that, too.)
Unsuck DC Metro’s complaint says it filed its PARP request on April 26, 2018, seeking a copy of the agency’s most recent customer satisfaction survey. On May 14, the agency denied the request, saying the entire record was exempt from disclosure because it represented “deliberative process and self-evaluative privileges.”
Unsuck DC Metro filed an administrative appeal that same day. After nearly a year, the agency provided its complete response: 29 pages of its September 2018 Customer Satisfaction Tracking Survey. All but one page was redacted. The agency cited “deliberative process” and “confidential business information” as reasons for withholding the records, and issued its bill with a directive to pay up if Unsuck DC Metro wanted responses to two pending requests.
Bekesha said the agency never bothered to contact Unsuck DC Metro with an estimate of the cost of searching and providing documents before the work is carried out, as is generally done with FOIA searches. He said Unsuck DC Metro’s other pending requests, filed in February, sought to obtain correspondence related to Metro’s new bicycle policy and on its contract for providing virtual tours of Metro stations.
One thing the lawsuit has already cleared up, sort of, is Unsuck DC Metro’s identity. The lawsuit describes Unsuck DC Metro as “an unincorporated association” from people around the Washington metro area, including about 80,000 followers on Twitter and 20,000 followers on Facebook.
“I think everybody assumes it’s a male and assumes its one person using Twitter, but it’s a group of people, and you saw that when the blog was up and running more frequently,” Bekesha said.