January 20, 2016 7:25 AM
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit could soon deliver a pivotal ruling in the case of Competitive Enterprise Institute v. Office of Science and Technology Policy. Our lawsuit involves a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking work-related emails from the personal email account of Dr. John Holdren, who has directed the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) since early 2009. This case could set an important precedent affirming FOIA’s vitality in digital era, ensuring that agency employees who increasingly conduct official business using non-governmental accounts—or even private servers—cannot evade the scrutiny of journalists and watchdog groups.
CEI filed this FOIA request in October 2013, asking the agency for emails sent to or from Holdren’s non-governmental email account relating to his official business as OSTP’s chief. Our request specifically asked for work-related emails in Holdren’s Woods Hole Research Center account, email@example.com, where he worked before President Obama tapped him to head OSTP. Even after joining the White House, Holdren kept using his private email account to correspond with other administration officials, as revealed by documents produced in response to a different CEI FOIA request involving the “Richard Windsor” alias used to conduct official business by former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.
Instead of searching Holdren’s private account for responsive documents, however, OSTP initially claimed we had requested records that were “beyond the reach of FOIA.” After we challenged this decision, OSTP eventually gave us emails from Holdren’s official OSTP account to or from his private account—but it did not search his private account as we had requested.
March 19, 2015 10:30 AM
This Sunshine Week, the administration that swept into office promising to be the “most transparent” in history was just judged by a major news service as least transparent of modern presidencies.
An analysis by the Associated Pres found that “the Obama administration set a record again for censoring government files or outright denying access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.” The AP adds that the administration “also acknowledged in nearly 1 in 3 cases that its initial decisions to withhold or censor records were improper under the law - but only when it was challenged.”
But FOIA requests are just the tip of the iceberg for this administration’s secrecy, much of which has nothing to do with the legitimate exception of national security. In Dodd-Frank, the administration set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Financial Stability Oversight Council—the constitutionality of both of which are now subject to a lawsuit from the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other parties—to be exempt from many open meetings and (especially with FSOC) open records requests.
But probably the most egregious example of this administration’s practicing of secrecy concerns its management of the government-sponsored housing enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In August 2012, then–Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner issued the “Third Amendment” to the GSE conservatorship. The Third Amendment would require all of the GSEs’ profits to be siphoned off to the U.S. Treasury Department in perpetuity—even after the GSEs paid back what they owed to taxpayers.
This arbitrary action has spawned more than 20 lawsuits from Fannie and Freddie’s private shareholders. The suits charge the administration with everything from violating the Administrative Procedure Act to unconstitutionally taking property without just compensation.
The Third Amendment has also raised concerns that the profit sweep is leaving Fannie and Freddie with very little capital reserves, furthering the chance for more taxpayer bailouts should something go awry with the housing market again. See this excellent paper by Cato Institute Director of Financial Regulation Studies Mark Calabria and former FDIC General Counsel Michael Krimminger on this point.
September 10, 2014 2:17 PM
The Obama administration has claimed that despite recurring language in the Obamacare law limiting tax credits to people who buy insurance on an “exchange established by the state,” such taxpayer subsidies are also available to people who buy insurance on the federal exchange, Healthcare.gov. (The availability of tax credits triggers employer mandates and penalties in any state where the tax credits are available, and the tax credits contain work disincentives and marriage penalties, so the tax credits are not a free lunch.)
Architects of Obamacare like Jonathan Gruber have argued that it is “nutty” to argue that Congress intended to limit tax credits to state exchanges. But this supposedly “nutty” view was once the view of Gruber himself – and, apparently, the federal government itself. When the Department of Health & Human Services issued a contract to create a federal exchange in 2011, the contract assumed tax credits didn’t apply to the federal exchange. (The original contract did not include any functions to allow purchasers to calculate their tax credits, or factor in tax credits before displaying health-insurance prices, and the contract was not amended to apply tax credits to the federal exchange until much, much later.)
Back in 2012, Gruber had himself admitted tax credits were not available on the federal exchange, contradicting his later statements. A 2012 video caught “Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber saying, ‘If you're a state and you don't set up an exchange, that means your citizens don't get their tax credits.’” In July 2013, that video was “nationally-publicized due to the efforts of CEI’s Ryan Radia,” who helped expose Gruber’s two-faced turnabout. (“The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Forbes, New Republic, Slate and others carried stories” due to Radia, noted the Des Moines Register.)
Gruber claimed that what he earlier said on the video was just a slip-of-the-tongue—a “speak-o” equivalent to a typo—but it turned out that he publicly made the same exact admission on at least one other occasion in 2012, before that admission became politically inconvenient.
As Forbes Magazine noted, “the irony is that” by 2013, “Gruber was deriding as ‘nutty’ and ‘stupid’ the contention that the Affordable Care Act required subsidies to flow through state-based exchange,” the very contention he himself made back in 2012. “It’s a ‘screwy interpretation’ of Obamacare, alleged Gruber in an interview with Erika Eichelberger of Mother Jones . . . ‘It’s nutty. It’s stupid… it’s essentially unprecedented in our democracy.’” Less than a week before his video was unearthed, “Gruber was on MSNBC’s Hardball,” where he proclaimed the “criminality” of those who argue tax credits are limited state-based exchanges.
But as Scot Vorse discovered, the government itself once recognized that credits are limited to state-based exchanges. In light of that discovery, CEI has submitted two FOIA requests, one to HHS headquarters, and one to the Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services, seeking additional information relevant to the government’s about-face.