Groups skilled in opposition research and separate from the traditional political parties have bombarded U.S. EPA and other federal agencies with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
American Bridge 21st Century, a liberal super PAC, as well as America Rising LLC, a private company that's affiliated with a conservative super PAC of the same name, have together sent dozens of requests since last year to several agencies, including EPA, the Department of Commerce, the Federal Labor Relations Authority and the National Archives.
According to a review of government records by Greenwire, many of the requests ask for documents on lawmakers running for re-election. Unlike other outside spending groups that concentrate on radio and television ads, American Bridge, created in 2010, and America Rising, founded just last year, have sought to dig up dirt on their opponents in order to embarrass them on the campaign trail.
"FOIA is our standard part of vetting of any incumbent representative or senator -- seeing how they communicate with agencies, what they're doing in office," Joe Pounder, president of America Rising, said in an interview. "It's another part of us matching their rhetoric on the campaign trail with their record. ... It's public information, or at least it should be."
So far, America Rising has sent about five FOIA requests to EPA this year, according to the agency's FOIA log.
Some of those requests are seeking information on communication between EPA and Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) on the Pebble mine project in the Bristol Bay watershed and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Begich is facing a tough re-election campaign this year and has been targeted by Republican-leaning political groups.
"In these cases, a lot of these senators that are up for re-election are in energy-heavy states, like Alaska, and they will communicate with EPA about EPA regulations. We want to see what they are doing and not doing about it," said Pounder, a former research director for the Republican National Committee.
American Bridge has also been active in the FOIA process. The liberal group has sent at least eight requests to EPA, asking for information involving Reps. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Steve Daines of Montana, Rodney Davis of Illinois and Michael Grimm of New York as well as North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis -- all Republican candidates locked in competitive House races or who are vying for the Senate this year.
Also, reviewing the agencies' FOIA logs already brings the 2016 presidential race into view.
For example, American Bridge has asked for EPA records on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), considered a 2016 White House contender.
In addition, America Rising has requested the FOIA log for the Clinton presidential library, which has been mined for tidbits on Hillary Clinton, then the first lady and now a favorite to be the Democrats' presidential nominee in 2016. The library has released about 18,000 pages of documents so far to the public (Greenwire, May 12).
Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, said it's "not at all surprising that the FOIA would be used in a selective, even tendentious way to advance a particular agenda."
"By law, the FOIA can be invoked by 'any person' and for any purpose," Aftergood added. "The only caveat is that overt political activity is not entitled under FOIA to a public interest fee waiver. Such requesters should be expected to pay full freight."
The groups in question have raised serious money. Super PACs can raise unlimited sums of money, and though they cannot contribute directly to candidates, the groups can spend freely for or against them.
American Bridge has raised nearly $7.2 million in contributions this election cycle so far while America Rising's super PAC has taken in more than $820,000 for the same time period, according to Federal Election Commission records.
The super PACs are not alone in the FOIA game. Party committees, such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as well as the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), show up in the request logs for EPA and other agencies.
Like the outside groups, they are typically searching for information on their political opponents.
"FOIA requests are part of a larger effort to research, study and learn as much as possible about the candidates in the race. Information is currency in politics," said Brad Dayspring, an NRSC spokesman.
Dan Metcalfe, the founding director of the Justice Department's Office of Information and Privacy, said using FOIA responses for opposition research was at first unusual but became more commonplace in the 1990s.
"People inside the Beltway understand the utility of the FOIA. I would think FOIA officers are rather used to it by now," said Metcalfe, now a law professor at the American University Washington College of Law.
Some of the committee's requests go beyond candidates. For example, the RNC has requested information on former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. She drew Republican lawmakers' scrutiny when it was revealed that she was using a second email account under an alias (E&ENews PM, May 7).
The "RNC has and will continue to aggressively use FOIA and all other avenues to try to obtain information from all of the Obama administration," said Kirsten Kukowski, a RNC spokeswoman.
Republicans have not been pleased with the Obama administration's response to their FOIA requests, suggesting agencies stall on their requests on Democratic candidates.
"It is a slow and grinding process," Pounder said. "It seems conservatives only get a response when they file a lawsuit."
In fact, the RNC sued the Internal Revenue Service last month for delays in responding to the committee's FOIA request.
Michael Corwin, owner of Corwin Research & Investigations LLC, said the problem with FOIA is "are you actually getting the information you requested? It's basically the honor system."
Nevertheless, Corwin, who does political and trial investigations, said he uses public records requests as often as possible.
"It makes sense to use them whenever you can. The government is the largest repository of information there is," Corwin said.
Further, by filing the FOIA requests themselves, the outside groups are allowing the campaigns to keep their hands clean of opposition research.
"A lot of campaigns want to appear to be distant from this kind of stuff, and the Supreme Court opened the door to the rise of these groups," Corwin said. "So it makes sense that the [political action committees] would get into this kind of game."
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