CEI v. White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)

October 2013: CEI filed a FOIA request for work-related emails that John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), kept on his private email account at his former employer, the environmental-pressure group Woods Hole Research Center. OSTP turned down the request, claiming that Holdren’s private account was outside its control and therefore wasn’t subject to FOIA.

May 2014:  CEI filed a lawsuit to force OSTP to produce the emails as the use of non-official accounts for agency business frustrates federal open-government laws, undermines government accountability, and evades congressional oversight efforts.

March 3, 2015: U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler upheld the agency’s position. She ruled that FOIA applied only to agency records controlled by the agency, and that Holdren’s private email account was off-limits. CEI appealed this decision arguing that personal email accounts of the White House top science advisor, John Holdren, should not be off-limits from the Freedom of Information Act. 

August 10, 2015: CEI filed its opening brief before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In the brief, CEI argued that FOIA applies to the work-related records of agency employees regardless of where they are stored, and that agencies routinely instruct their staff to preserve any such documents that they have on their personal email accounts. The brief also argued that given the growing scandals over other top officials’ private emails, a reversal of the lower court’s ruling would be essential to putting teeth into FOIA, especially in light of President Obama’s claim that his administration is the most transparent in history.

July 5, 2016: CEI won a major victory as a three-judge panel of the DC Circuit ruled that agency records including “departmental emails on an account in another domain” must be searched or produced in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. This ruling overturned a district court ruling and remanded that case back to the district court for further proceedings.

January 10, 2017: CEI opposed OSTP’s motion for summary judgment, contending that OSTP attempted to re-litigate the issues on which it already lost in the circuit.  Moreover, OSTP provided no reason to believe that Holdren had in fact forwarded all of his relevant private emails.

March 13, 2017: U.S. District Court judge Gladys Kessler granted the government’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that there was no evidence that Holdren failed to copy work-related emails on his private email account to his agency account, and that the agency therefore need only produce emails from his official account.

Note: CEI has filed another lawsuit against the OSTP over Holdren’s claims in a video about the polar vortex released in January 2014. View the lawsuit here.