SEJ Opposes Defanging of FOIA Ombud Office

February 13, 2008

The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) urged Congress to use its funding power to establish a new independent "ombudsman" office to oversee how the federal government performs its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

After signing legislation creating the office reluctantly on New Year's Eve, President Bush sent Congress a budget moving the office from the independent National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to the Justice Department, which is tightly controlled by political loyalists.

Congressional leaders and open-government groups protested that the move was unlawful and undercut the purpose of the FOIA reform amendments, which was to establish an independent office to monitor federal FOIA performance and referee disputes over access to records. The ombud unit is called the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS).

Through its Freedom of Information Task Force, SEJ takes positions, as authorized by its board, on information-access issues that affect journalists' ability to do their jobs. SEJ's position was expressed in a Feb. 6, 2008, letter from President Timothy Wheeler faxed to House and Senate Appropriations Committee leaders.

"The OPEN Government Act established OGIS specifically at NARA," Wheeler wrote. "It did so because of concerns that DOJ has the responsibility to defend government agency clients in litigation brought by public records requesters, creating a conflict of interest."

The letter went on: "Congress specifically directed the creation of an ombudsman office apart from the Department of Justice. The new office was established with strong bipartisan support. We strongly oppose this effort to use the budget process to undermine Congressional intent and flout a specific statutory mandate."