Evan Bush / Center for Public Integrity

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For the second time in three months, the Center for Public Integrity has filed a federal lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission for refusing to release documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

In July, Center for Public Integrity senior political reporter Dave Levinthal filed a FOIA request seeking a study the agency commissioned to detail the decay in the security and management of its computer systems and networks.

The taxpayer-funded study, which cost $199,500 to produce, followed Center for Public Integrity reporting that revealed how Chinese hackers successfully infiltrated the FEC’s computer systems in October 2013.

The 44-page document — known within the FEC as the “NIST study” — also provides recommendations on how to fix the FEC’s problems and bring its computer systems in line with specific National Institute of Standards and Technology computer security protocols.

In mid-August, the FEC initially refused the Center for Public Integrity’s request for a copy.

The Center for Public Integrity immediately appealed the decision of the agency, which is responsible for enforcing and regulating the nation’s election laws and providing timely public disclosure of fundraising and spending by thousands of federal political candidates and committees.

The FEC’s commissioners — in 5-1 vote conducted during a closed-door meeting in late September — then rejected the Center for Public Integrity’s appeal. In doing so, the FEC cited the “deliberative process privilege” in federal law, which is designed to “prevent injury to the quality of agency decisions.”

Chairwoman Ann Ravel voted to release the study. Vice Chairman Matthew Petersen, along with commissioners Ellen Weintraub, Steven Walther, Caroline Hunter and Lee Goodman, voted to withhold it.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia will now consider the question of whether the FEC should release the study, either in part or in full.

“The fact that the FEC denied us access to the entire report, and declined even to release a redacted version, is outrageous,” said John Dunbar, deputy executive editor and overseer of political coverage with the Center for Public Integrity. “Again, we are chagrined to have to go to court to access information that should be publicly available.”

In a separate matter, the Center for Public Integrity sued the FEC during July after waiting nearly a year for the agency to release information requested under FOIA pertaining to commissioners’ work schedules. The FEC has since released some of the requested documents but not all, and the Center for Public Integrity’s lawsuit remains pending in U.S. District Court.

The Center for Public Integrity is one of the country’s oldest and largest nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organizations and winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

Its “Consider the Source” project reports on how money influences politics and both the federal and state levels and frequently writes about the FEC’s activities.

This story was co-published with Poynter.

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