Adventures with FDIC secrecy, cont.

October 11, 2011
saw how the Federal Housing Finance Agency was above the law, with the government seemingly having no ability to tell it what to do. This week, it's the FDIC.

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Last week, we saw how the Federal Housing Finance Agency was above the law, with the government seemingly having no ability to tell it what to do. This week, it’s the FDIC. In the wake of its obstreporous obstructionism upon receipt of FOIA requests, the FDIC’s smug above-the-law impunity is now coming to light:

JunketSleuth worked for months with an attorney from the Office of Governmental Information Services, which mediates disputes between federal agencies and people requesting public records under FOIA.

The attorney was able to help persuade a number of other agencies to provide JunketSleuth with electronic and paper travel records. But she was unable to get the FDIC to provide the exact same types of records…

Federal agencies routinely violate FOIA, as they’ve done since the law was created decades ago. Still, few agencies have rejected requests identical to those that others have granted, especially when the government’s own attorneys (in this case at OGIS) have worked with the agencies to secure access to the records.

This letter, in particular, from the FDIC simply drips with contempt and condescension for anybody daring to file a FOIA from the FDIC. And the long history of correspondence in this case clearly exhibits an utter lack of goodwill at the FDIC, or any desire at all to comply with the spirit of the FOIA law.

In general, it’s the financial agencies within the government — the FHFA, the FDIC, the Federal Reserve (especially the NY Fed, which considers itself not to be a public entity at all), and of course Treasury — which are by far the worst when it comes to transparency and disclosure. We’re constantly told that certain information is commercially sensitive, for example, only to discover when it finally does get disclosed that there’s nothing commercially sensitive about it.

I’m not sure how to fix this. The White House doesn’t seem to be able to change anything: Barack Obama, for instance, released an executive memo on his inauguration day, making it clear that the Freedom of Information Act “should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.” The financial arms of government barely blinked, and continued in their secretive ways.

But in this one particular case, at least, I think it might help if a sympathetic journalist started asking for the FDIC’s travel records independently from JunketSleuth. The FDIC doesn’t consider JunketSleuth a legitimate news organization, and seems to be treating it with especial prejudice. Would they send these kind of letters to an established mainstream news outlet which asked for the exact same information? There’s only one way to find out.

Update: Andrew Gray of the FDIC responds by email:

I’m regretting not getting involved the first time that this was raised but wanted to commit to you that I will personally look into it to see what the issues are.  From my experience, the FDIC is strongly in favor of the transparency required in both the letter and spirit of FOIA.  I know of at least two recent sensitive requests from your Reuters colleagues that were handled to their full satisfaction and have worked with numerous other news outlets and other outside individuals to ensure that their requests are handled appropriately and expeditiously.  While I still need to learn more about the facts in this specific request, I would submit that it is a bit of a stretch to cast a sweeping generalization about our commitment to FOIA based on this one case.

Particularly during the last few years, the FDIC has consistently demonstrated is commitment to openness and transparency.  We make public extremely detailed data about the banking industry, our P&A agreements from failed banks, structured sales and other programs.  During the crisis, we led the development, implementation and management of the Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program, including posting public monthly reporting on debt issuances.  As an agency, we have led an unprecedented and voluntary transparency initiative throughout the implementation of Dodd/Frank, including posting the names and affiliations in all meetings with outside groups.  Our mission is public confidence – and our reputation as an agency has been enhanced by our willingness to be forthcoming with the public about our actions and views.


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