FIRST Principles Update for March 21, 2017

News Media for Open Government publishes FIRST Principles to update you on some of what we’re following.

Lawmakers prod executive branch to implement FOIA reforms. On March 15, 2017, senior senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee sent letters seeking updates and timetables for completing reforms that Congress put in place last year make the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) work better. Signed by Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA), Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), John Cornyn (R-TX) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the letters were notable for sending a clear message that Senators on a bipartisan basis want to see the executive branch improve its performance responding to FOIA requests. Letters were sent to the Justice Department, Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Government Information Services.

The Senators asked OMB Director Mick Mulvaney for a specific date the public can expect to see the FOIA portal, steps that OMB has taken to create it, and funding plans for the project. OMB was also asked when it will update FOIA fee guidance and to explain its progress establishing standards allowing various agency FOIA processing systems to seamlessly exchange information.

In a separate letter to the Office of Government Information Services, which mediates disputes and must recommend ways to improve compliance with FOIA, new OGIS director Alina Semo was asked for any recommendations to improve FOIA and whether interest in OGIS services have changed since the reforms were enacted.

House Oversight leads push to ensure records are preserved. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and that Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) sent letters to dozens of federal agencies raising questions about compliance with record-keeping requirements after news reports indicated federal staff are using unofficial social media tools to communicate, which could jeopardize the preservation of those communications. In a separate letter to White House General Counsel Donald McGahn, Chaffetz and Cummings sought assurances that proper archiving systems are in place to comply with the Presidential Record Act. The letter cites news reports reporting that President Trump deleted Tweets and executive branch and White House staff are using ShapChat and other tools that delete messages automatically.
Letter to White House:

Tester and Sasse create the Senate Transparency Caucus. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) announced he is partnering with Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) to create the nonpartisan Senate Transparency Caucus to “bring greater transparency and accountability to all branches of the government.” In a letter to colleagues, Tester indicated the Caucus would “serve as a platform to discuss, craft and support measures” to increase transparency.

Tester was busy during Sunshine Week. He announced legislation to put contracts online in a searchable form, and re-introduced the Public Online Information Act, which would push the executive branch to make all public records available online in a searchable format.

Leaks criticized during House Intel hearing on Russia. Amid the revelation by FBI Director James Comey that the FBI has an ongoing investigation into the Russia’s efforts to influence the presidential election, which includes whether there was any coordination with persons associated with the Trump campaign, some Committee members focused their criticism on the unauthorized disclosures themselves. Comey would neither confirm nor deny whether the FBI was investigating the leaks. Questioning by Devin Nunes and Trey Gowdy appeared to be laying the groundwork for investigating and prosecuting unauthorized disclosures to the news media.