Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Homeland Security apologizes to me for FOIA snafu, but there's a bigger issue in the weeds

6/18/11: From On Second Thought by Ben Kaufman, Cincinnati CityBeat's media critic:
(Anthony M. Bennett, disclosure branch chief of the Department of Homeland Security wrote) to Peter M. Heimlich, who was pursuing the cozy relationship between federal officials and funding of the dubious Save-A-Life Foundation. Because it’s the latest entry in my “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up” file, I will quote Bennett’s exercise in critical thinking a couple weeks ago:
"This letter pertains to your (Peter Heimlich’s) Jan. 20, 2010, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)/Federal Emergency Management Agency...By a letter dated March 19, 2010, we advised you of the estimated fee of $410.00 for processing your FOIA request. Because the estimated fee exceeded $250.00, we required an advance payment of the estimated fee for us to continue processing your request. We also advised you in that letter that if payment was not received within 14 business days, we would consider your request withdrawn. To date, we have not received your payment. As a result, we are administratively closing this case.

"Additionally, please be advised that because we have not received a payment of $410.00, we will not process any future requests you submit to this office. Moreover, in accordance with 6 C.F.R. 5.11(g), we may charge interest on any unpaid bill starting on the 31st day following the date of this letter. Interest charges will be assessed at the rate provided in 31 U.S.C. 3717 and will accrue from the date of the billing, in this case March 19, 2010, until payment is received by FEMA.

"FEMA shall follow the provisions of the Debt Collection Act of1982, as amended, and its administrative procedures, including the use of consumer reporting agencies, collection agencies, and offset. If you have any questions or would like to discuss this matter, please feel free to contact this office..."
Click here to view a copy of Dr. Bennett's March 31, 2011 letter.

Kaufman's publishing date coincided with the following correspondence:
my 4/18/11 inquiry/response to Dept. of Homeland Security

4/18/11 apology from Homeland Security 

While I'm pleased to get an apology from DHS and to once again be permitted to file FOIA requests with that agency, during the course of this dust-up, I took a closer look at 6 C.F.R. 5.11, cited in Dr. Bennett's letter. That's the section in DHS's FOIA guidelines which governs fees.

This caught my eye (emphasis added): 
(l) Payment of outstanding fees. The Department shall not process a FOIA request from persons with an unpaid fee from any previous FOIA request to any Federal agency until that outstanding fee has been paid in full to the agency.
In other words, if you owe a fee to another federal agency, for example, the Department of the Navy, DHS can refuse to fill your FOIA request.

Some Googling led to an interesting preliminary result. DHS appears to be the only federal agency whose FOIA guidelines include this cross-agency right to deny which in effect allows DHS to play the role of collection agency for any other branch of the government: "Want us to fill your FOIA? Not until you settle your bill with the Department of ____________."

I'm doing some snooping and if anything interesting turns up, I'll post the results.