Unkept promise for ‘new era of open government’ 

Justice Department documents made public yesterday by Judicial Watch exposed quite a contradiction — a secret meeting on transparency in government. It happened on Dec. 7, 2009, and was convened by the Office of Information Policy in the Justice Department headed by Attorney General Eric Holder. The meeting’s purpose was to train Freedom of Information Act officers from federal agencies on how to respond to FOIA requests, including tips on resolving disputes over what government documents can be made public.

Judicial Watch obtained a series of pre-conference emails in which Justice Department officials sought approval from White House media officials for closing the meeting to reporters. That the December meeting was closed was no isolated incident. In one of the emails, Melanie Pustay, OIP’s director, said she has “always held parallel meetings, one for agency ’ees [i.e., government employees] and then one that is open.” We can only wonder what Pustay tells government FOIA officers that she doesn’t want journalists to hear.

It was President Barack Obama who said on his first day in the Oval Office that he wanted his subordinates in the executive branch to respond to FOIA requests “with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.” Apparently that memo didn’t make it to the Justice Department’s OIP, which oversees executive branch compliance with the FOIA. As Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton said, “only in Washington would political appointees think it appropriate to keep secret a government workshop on transparency.”

Unfortunately, keeping the meeting secret isn’t the only area in which the Obama administration’s record on this issue has proven to be woefully short of what the president promised. In both the Fast and Furious and Solyndra scandals, for example, Obama appointees have held back thousands of documents legitimately sought by congressional investigators while defending their refusal with arguments coined by President Richard Nixon.

Similarly, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis has gutted transparency regulations that required labor unions to disclose information about the organizations’ financial health, including union officers’ total compensation packages. Also killed was a requirement to report on union trusts, which often function like offshore accounts for corporations in providing a means of hiding assets. And gone is a requirement that would have made unions report on “no-show” jobs — positions for which the union is paid but nobody actually does the work. The biggest losers when unions are able to conceal such information are union members.

That is likely why a recent survey of union households by Americans for Limited Government found that “94 percent of the respondents agreed that ‘union officials and executives should have to disclose their salaries and benefits connected to their official union office as a way of making them accountable to their members.’” When it comes to transparency, the Obama team apparently sides with bureaucrats against taxpayers and union bosses against union members.

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