FOIA Favoritism at the FCC


What's the quickest way to get a FOIA request returned by the FCC? Try asking it for information about a political enemy of the Obama administration.

The Daily Caller reports that the Federal Communications Commission likely played a little game of favorites with Citiizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (also known as CREW) by releasing over 200 pages of documents about Rupert Murdoch in response to the group's FOIA request. 

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington — a group funded in part through the philanthropy of left-wing billionaire investor George Soros — obtained 233 pages of records on Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp. media empire, from between Jan. 1, 2006 and July 15, 2011, according to documents available on CREW's Scribd account.

The FCC's response included correspondence about News Corp.'s acquisition of Dow Jones & Co., the parent company of The Wall Street Journal, and News Corp.'s transfer of its control of Direct TV to Liberty Media Corporation.

"The records consist of 176 pages of e-mail communications between parties outside of the agency and Commission personnel and 57 pages of Congressional correspondence," said Michael S. Perko, chief of the FCC's Media Bureau Office of Communication and Industry Information, in the agency's response letter to CREW.

The Daily Caller previously reported that the agency denies approximately 46.8 percent of the Freedom of Information Act requests it receives, making it one of the more secretive outfits in federal government.

CREW's request sought "any and all records … of any kind … regardless of format, medium, or physical characteristics" within that four and a half year timespan "referencing or pertaining to News Corp and/or Rupert Murdoch."

The July 15, 2011 request, the organization said, was made in response to the U.K. phone hacking scandal that rocked Murdoch's News Corp. media empire. On August 9, 2011 the cache was delivered.

Emphasis is mine, and meant to highlight just how amazing this is. CREW's request should have, under the Fed's own practices, been rejected. Why? Because it's incredibly broad.

Let me illustrate with an example: Last year, I submitted a FOIA request to the DEA asking for emails (just emails!) on a specific policy issue that were transmitted over a specific time period. Last week–nearly seven months after I filed my request–a FOIA officer with the agency called me and told me my request was too broad and asked me to narrow it by giving him the specific names of emailers. He very politely added that if I didn't narrow my search criteria, I would receive a rejection letter from the agency that I would then have to appeal. If my appeal did not contain a more specific request, I would have to sue. 

The fact that CREW was able to submit a request that basically said, "Give us everything you have on Rupert Murdoch," and then received that information in one month is absolutely amazing. It means the FCC either had a dossier ready to dump, or that it dedicated a team of FOIA officers (or political appointees) to satisfying this one request. 

(I can't speak for the motivations of the FCC, and I'm not saying that they should have taken longer. FOIA requests across the board should be handled much quicker than they currently are, and there's a lot of information that federal agencies only release in response to FOIA that should be publicly available.)