Last week, the U.S. Department of Defense and Office of Management and Budget agreed to settle a federal lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act and pay the Center for Public Integrity $15,000 in attorney’s fees.
In October, U.S. Customs and Border Protection settled a separate lawsuit and paid $13,000 in attorney’s fees to Public Integrity, bringing the total in FOIA-related settlements the Trump administration has paid to the investigative news organization over the past year to nearly $40,000. In July, the U.S. Department of Commerce settled two other Public Integrity FOIA lawsuits and paid $11,000 in attorney’s fees.
Public Integrity won a preliminary injunction against DoD and OMB that resulted in December 2019 in the partial release of documents reflecting how the two agencies responded to President Donald Trump’s hold on military aid to Ukraine. Soon after, the House of Representatives impeached Trump for using that suspension for political purposes. Public Integrity continued to contest the withholding, or redaction, of significant information in the released documents, but U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly in August upheld most of the redactions.
Public Integrity filed suit against CBP in October 2018 after the agency failed to respond to a FOIA request for information on personal searches conducted by customs personnel at airports and border crossings. CBP initially failed to disclose what records it possessed but after nearly two years of litigation agreed to release two large databases to Public Integrity.
“The award of attorney’s fees in cases of egregious violation of the Freedom of Information Act is an important victory for the public’s right to know and for journalism,” said Public Integrity Editor-in-Chief Matt DeRienzo. “We’ll continue to go to court to force the release of government information that’s crucial to the public interest.”
The FOIA gives journalists and non-journalists alike the “right to request access to records from any federal agency” in the spirit of keeping Americans “in the know about their government.” By law, federal agencies are generally required to respond to FOIA requests within 20 business days.
In the journalism field, Public Integrity is a leader in its use of FOIA litigation to obtain documents and data from government agencies. Among news media requesters, only The New York Times, Buzzfeed and Jason Leopold, now with Buzzfeed, have filed more FOIA lawsuits during the past two decades, according to a study by the FOIA Project at Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
The attorney’s fee payments will compensate Public Integrity for hours spent by staff attorney Peter Newbatt Smith on the two cases. A federal court may award attorney’s fees to a plaintiff in a FOIA case who “has substantially prevailed,” either by winning a court order or by prompting the agency to change its position.