Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Treasury hiring FOIA officers 'to withhold information from release to public'

From the Washington Examiner:

Officials at the Treasury Department’s Office of Financial Stability contracted with a small consulting firm that has given nearly $25,000 to Democratic candidates since 2005 (and no money to Republicans) to hire “Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Analysts to support the Disclosure Services, Privacy and Treasury Records.” The firm is currently advertising a job opening for a FOIA analyst with experience in the “Use of FOIA/PA exemptions to withhold information from release to the public” (emphasis mine, and if that link goes down, The Examiner has kept a copy for its records). 
This means that the entire OFS, which is tasked with overseeing the Troubled Asset Relief Program, is trying to hire people who will withhold information from release to the public.
In fact, according to the website of the staffing company, Phacil (pronounced Fa-SEAL), co-founders Rafael Collado and Sascha Mornell were “thanked by President Obama,” and “commended at the White House during National Small Business Week for being selected the SBA New Jersey State Small Business Persons of the Year.” The contract is listed under service contracts of the Office of Financial Stability in a recent report from the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Collado and Mornell are among the top donors at the firm. Mornell has given $12,600 over the years, while Collado has given $6,700. Another donor, Robert Cottingham, listed Phacil as his employer, stating his position as vice president of government affairs. 
That Treasury outsourced its mechanism for transparency to a firm with such partisan ties casts new light on a report from Bloomberg News in which Treasury officials have repeatedly obstructed reporters’ requests for information. 
In one instance, Treasury waited to respond to a Freedom of Information request for 20 months despite saying at least five times that a response was imminent. Bloomberg had requested that officials identify $301 billion of securities owned by Citigroup Inc. that the government had agreed to guarantee. When a response finally came, it was in the form of 560 pages of printed-out and heavily redacted emails, none of which had been requested. 
It is not certain whether Phacil was involved in redacting the emails, but the incomplete response was considered sufficient by the department to fulfill the requirements of a “partial response.”
In another, Treasury cited a “trade-secrets exemption” when responding to another of Bloomberg’s FOIA requests about Citigroup’s segregated bad assets. According to Bloomberg:
In that response, 73 of 104 pages were completely blacked out except for headings.
Only six pages — the cover, contents, a boilerplate list of legal disclosures and a paragraph titled “FOIA Request for Confidential Treatment” — were free of redactions.
But it too is considered a “partial response:”
The department’s reply to Pittman’s request will count statistically as a “partial response,” in government reports, said Hugh Gilmore, Treasury’s FOIA public liaison. The response “adhered to the rules, regulations, U.S. attorney general guidance and relevant case law that govern FOIA,” Steven Adamske, a Treasury spokesman, said in an e-mail.
Such legal acrobatics may have been informed by Phacil’s consulting, even as it advertises the meaning of the company name on its website: “Phacil, pronounced ‘Fah-SEAL;’ achieved with little effort or difficulty; easy.” Except when it comes to transparency. 
In fact, while Phacil’s website advertises among its services its ability to conduct Freedom of Information Act work, no contracts are listed in which it does so. No employee listed on the management page lists an expertise in FOIA either. It is unclear what experience the company had in FOIA prior to the contract from Treasury. 
Phacil has also posted a job listing on its own website for a specialist in FOIA citing an “immediate need a FOIA Analyst [sic] to support a very high-profile government customer in Washington D.C.” Included in the scope of the work is “Redacting or withholding agency records citing appropriate exemptions and generating response letters; and Responding to requestors concerning the agency’s disclosure determination by generating response letters.”
Even more unbelievably, among the qualifications requested is: “Use of FOIA/PA exemptions to withhold information from release to the public.” 
But Phacil’s top executives weren’t always for withholding information from release to the public. In 2005, Phacil’s president Sascha Mornell submitted two FOI requests to the U.S. General Services Administration to request information about Booz Allen Hamilton’s subcontracting plan “including goals and commitments.” The requests were made on letterhead in June 2005. 
A year prior, Phacil boasted of a partnership with Booz Allen. According to their site: “During this partnership, Booz Allen will provide strategy, infrastructure and operations support to Phacil as the company develops into a larger business. Booz Allen will also provide subcontracting opportunities and assistance with new business development activities to Phacil.” Undoubtedly learning about Booz Allen’s subcontracting plan via FOI was helpful in developing its relationship with the large government contractor
In other words, while company heads have used FOI requests to their benefit to learn more about competitors and partners in government contracts, they are seeking to hire candidates that would be able to withhold information from release to the public.
Mornell could not be reached for comment.

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