I don’t know if David Schnare even wrote a resignation letter when he quit his job at the Environmental Protection Agency. But if he did, I want to know what it said.
That’s why, on March 20, 2017, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for that letter and Schnare’s EPA e-mails regarding his resignation. Signed into law on Independence Day in 1966, FOIA established citizens’ right to know what’s happening inside the government. Mine was a simple request, and thus it was given an expected return date of April 19, 2017.
On June 4, 2018, I received an email from the EPA legal counsel’s office. “The Office of the Administrator has experienced a significant increase in FOIA requests since the start of this administration,” it read. “As of May 7, 2018, your FOIA request ... is currently 203 in the queue.” The email went on to say that the average processing time for complex requests was about 388 days, and thus my request for Schnare’s resignation letter would now have an estimated completion date of September 13, 2018—512 days after my initial request.
The EPA has indeed experienced an increase in FOIA requests since Scott Pruitt took the helm at the agency, and career employees in the agency’s various FOIA offices have told me they are understaffed and overwhelmed. But Pruitt appears to be making it even harder for them to do their jobs.
On Monday, the House Oversight Committee’s top Democrat delivered a letter to Pruitt, accusing him of “intentionally delaying the release of documents under FOIA relating to your tenure at EPA.” Congressman Elijah Cummings said two of Pruitt’s former top aides testified that Pruitt ordered EPA staff to focus on old public records requests related to the Obama administration, and not to fulfill requests related to him until those were finished. This is not a normal practice; in fact, Pruitt’s former senior advisor Sarah Greenwalt told Cummings she explicitly advised against it. She recommended that EPA respond to FOIA requests the normal way—“as they come in, recognizing that some FOIAs are larger than others and more time-consuming and more complicated than others.”
Internal EPA emails cited by Cummings also showed that Pruitt directed his political staff to review FOIA-requested documents before they were released to the public. That way, political staff could ensure the documents wouldn’t be damaging to Pruitt’s reputation. And if they were, Pruitt’s political staff would have enough time to think up an excuse or response. Together, these policies have caused a dramatic slow-down in public records responses, Cummings said.
Policies like these could certainly explain why I haven’t yet gotten David Schnare’s resignation letter or emails regarding his resignation. If either exists, it’s possible they would be damaging. Schnare was a senior member of Trump’s transition team at the EPA, and abruptly resigned less than a month after Pruitt became administrator. He later called his resignation a “question of integrity.” In an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation, he said he had a “much deeper story” than he was willing to tell at the time.
But I’m far from the only reporter seeking information that may be needlessly delayed because of Pruitt’s policies.
On April 3 of this year, Huffington Post reporter Ashley Feinberg filed a request for “any and all electronic correspondence” between EPA staffer Millan Hupp and Pruitt. Hupp, who resigned from her job as Pruitt’s scheduler last week, was at the center of many Pruitt controversies, the most famous one being that Pruitt allegedly asked Hupp to find him a used mattress from one of Trump’s hotels. On June 1, Feinberg received an email from EPA saying her request was 1,208th in the queue, with an estimated completion date of September 27, 2019—542 days after she filed it.
Another EPA reporter—who asked not to be named to speak freely about her job— said they filed a request for any “policies or guidance” about how the EPA staff should communicate with reporters. That request, submitted July 2017, is 550th in the EPA’s queue. The estimated completion date is September 2019, also 542 days after the original request.
In his letter to Pruitt, Cummings noted that “EPA regulations require the agency to use ‘multitrack processing’ in which simple requests are processed more quickly than complex requests. EPA regulations provide that if the agency determines that a request would be placed in the slower track, the agency would provide the requester with the opportunity to narrow the scope of the request. Guidance issued by the Department of Justice encourages agencies to use multi-track processing so that simple requests are processed more quickly and do not get stuck behind older, more complex requests.”
Nick Surgey, who writes for The Intercept and has broken several big stories about the EPA through FOIA requests, says he has experienced firsthand the agency’s failure to use multi-track processing. “I don’t think any of my requests have actually been determined complex, and most I would say are very simple,” he said. Some of Surgey’s most simple requests—like one for former EPA staffer Samatha Dravis’s resignation letter—are estimated to take more than 500 days. “It’s like when I got to my local pizza place and they say it’s a two-hour wait,” he said. “They don’t know. They just mean, ‘Fuck off.’”