With Aaron’s encouragement, I wrote on June 23 and again yesterday to Lance Purvis, Office of the Solicitor FOIA Officer at the Department of the Interior, asking about the redaction of what are essentially public relations exercises: Talking Points and a “brief blurb” drafted by Gary Lawkowski in December of 2017 to explain the reversal of the Obama administration’s legal opinion on Antofagasta’s mineral leases near the Boundary Waters.
The redacted documents, which I posted on Twitter and included in a previous post, are marked with Exemption (b) (5). This covers attorney/client, attorney work product, or deliberative process privilege; and it is intended to protect documents that are pre-decisional, or unfinalized, where someone at an agency seeks legal advice for formulating policy, or where agency officials deliberate about a policy or decision.
Though Gary Lawkowski is an attorney and was at that time working for Solicitor Daniel Jorjani — they are fellow travelers from the Koch Brothers-backed Freedom Partners — these public-facing communications do not constitute legal advice for formulating policy. Can they be withheld as internal agency deliberations? Only if they are pre-decisional and their release would confuse the public about steps the agency decided not to take; and that would be a real stretch, as these documents explain a decision already taken, namely, the new legal opinion. So how can communications of this kind, talking points and blurbs intended for public consumption, be covered by Exemption 5?
The most relevant case in the Justice Department’s own archive of court decisions on Exemption 5 appears to be Fox News Network LLC v. Dept of Treasury. This was a 2012 case that dealt directly with the assertion of Exemption 5 to withhold public relations documents and communiques. The outcome was mixed: the court granted and denied motions for summary judgment in part for both the plaintiff and the defendant.
The documents at issue relate to press releases, inquiries from the press, and related e-mails, which were withheld because “they reflect ‘how best to present Treasury’s position.’ In an earlier decision [a 2010 decision on Fox v. Treasury which Judge Frank Maas refers to as Fox I], the court explained “that communication concerning how to present agency policies to the press or public, although deliberative, typically do not qualify as substantive policy decisions protected by the deliberative process privilege.” The court states: “Drafts of public relations documents therefore may properly be withheld if their release would reveal the status of internal agency deliberations or substantive policy matters.” Applying these principles, the court finds that disclosure of drafts of certain press releases and related e-mails would “reveal the evolution of Treasury’s thinking regarding the proposed restructuring of the AIG investments.” However, where it cannot be “shown that the materials relate to anything other than past events…[and] there is no indication that the ‘public response’ about which the author speaks involves policy action, rather than mere messaging[,]…documents are not entitled to protection under the deliberative process privilege.” [emphasis mine]
A full week has gone by without reply or even acknowledgement. These documents are being released as part of an agreement reached in my pro se FOIA lawsuit against the Trump administration, so the issue will need to be addressed. And while these heavy-handed assertions of privilege may seem small and not worth arguing over — what are we going to learn from those talking points that we don’t already know? — they are part of a larger pattern of abuse.