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USDA runaround on FOIA request

The runaround, the spokesman

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The runaround, the spokesman

Baskets of vegetables.

I’m relatively new to the practice of sending requests for information to the federal government, but I’ve seen this tactic before.

On Jan. 25, I filed a FOIA request with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, which in recent days has been under fire for ordering scientists not to speak to the public about their work, then later reversing course and lifting the gag order. The mandate, and its subsequent cancellation, was widely reported by the press after internal USDA documents were leaked to reporters.

My request asked for emails sent, received, drafted or deleted by Chavonda Jacobs-Young, the research service’s administrator, containing a few keywords: peer-review, media, Congress, Trump, etc. In relatively short order, an employee in the research service’s FOIA office calls me on Jan. 27. to acknowledge the agency has received my request.

But then she says the agency has already compiled some documents that were responsive to my request, and if I called a spokesman, he’d give them to me. Also, she adds, she wants to place my request on hold until after I get whatever documents her coworker has. My request could take a long time to complete, and the other documents are already available, so why don’t I just get those?

Though it wasn’t explicitly stated, she was offering me a deal: We’ll give you a few emails we’ve specially selected if you quit bothering us.

I politely but firmly remind her that no reason exists for my request to be placed on hold. According to Sec. 300.7 of FOIA, requests may be placed on hold if they’re deemed “imperfect,” but that applies to defective requests that are missing pertinent information. I tell her I’ll contact her colleague and see what documents he has, but I still want what I originally asked for. My request is to be processed as required by law.

I called the agency spokesman. He was nice. He offered me the same emails that had already been leaked to newsrooms across the world.

I’ve seen this tactic — public officials sacrificing a few innocuous documents in hopes a reporter will chill — at the local and state level. I’m not surprised it’s in play at the USDA. And the agency may have reason to worry: one of the employees mentioned to me that the USDA has received 25 to 35 requests similar to mine.

Though I could speculate on what the documents I’ve requested will say, there’s really no telling. There could be a bombshell story there or there could be nothing at all. But when officials give reporters the run around, it makes our ears prick up. I makes us want to dig deeper.

It makes us wonder what they’re hiding.

20170123 Interim Procedures secretary’s interim procedures 12209

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