EPA

IG clears agency of bias on FOIA fees; critic disagrees

The Energy & Environment Legal Institute, a conservative-leaning group, blasted U.S. EPA in a new report over allegations of bias against agency critics' public records fee waiver requests.

But EPA's inspector general office released its own report today that it found no evidence of favoring certain groups over others while processing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests — a conclusion that had Chris Horner, counsel for both E&E Legal and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, charging that the IG had "tailored" the investigation to avoid evidence of "abusive agency practices."

"Its claim to 'randomly' including CEI, and with equal randomness, excluding E&E Legal from an inquiry into allegations triggered by revelations of its treatment of both groups strains credulity; further, random examination, and instead examining into EPA treatment of others whose experience does not indicate they were similarly targeted, only makes sense if OIG is trying to change the subject and as it did once before simply to avoid the more troubling questions," Horner said in a statement.

An EPA spokeswoman noted that for its report, the watchdog used an extensive sample of FOIA fee waiver denials stretching over several years.

"The [EPA IG's] report looked at over 1,000 denials over a three year period and found no bias. The conclusion stands on its own," spokeswoman Liz Purchia said.

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E&E Legal has no connection to Greenwire's publisher, E&E Publishing LLC.

In E&E Legal's own report, the group said that EPA granted fee waivers to "environmentalist pressure groups" 58 percent of the time that they were requested, compared to 33 percent for "conservative" requesters.

The group said denying fee waivers for the agency's critics lead to them spending more time and resources on digging up key information from EPA.

"This is a classic campaign of using overwhelming governmental resources to wear down targeted opponents, in this case non-profit watchdog groups," E&E Legal says in its report.

For its investigation, the IG reviewed 1,062 denials of FOIA fee waiver requests by EPA. The EPA watchdog said it "found no indications of bias in the fee waiver decisions we reviewed."

Specifically, the IG looked at 475 fee waiver requests from 21 different organizations and said it would have decided differently than the agency in 23 instances, or roughly 5 percent of the time.

E&E Legal, however, cites a December 2013 interview by IG staff of Horner. From that interview, Horner learned that CEI was included in the IG's sample by random but not E&E Legal.

"The 'random' process excluded by far the most glaring case study in EPA's pattern of violations," the group says in its report.

Horner has been a thorn in EPA's side for some time.

He was able to uncover then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's "Richard Windsor" email alias using FOIA (Greenwire, Aug. 14, 2013). In addition, E&E Legal has sued the agency over fee waiver requests in the past (Greenwire, Nov. 14, 2013).

EPA's handling of FOIA requests under the Obama administration has drawn Republican criticism. In a March 2013 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), David Vitter (R-La.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said "the mismanagement of FOIA requests at multiple levels of the EPA requires your immediate attention."

Twitter: @KevinBogardus | Email: kbogardus@eenews.net

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