DOT’s “Mayor Pete” FOIA Compliance Earns Rotten Review

DOT’s “Mayor Pete” FOIA Compliance Earns Rotten Review

  • April 7, 2022

Watchdog files lawsuit over response to records request

Today, federal watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust announced a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Department of Transportation (DOT) over a request for records involving officials’ conduct around the movie “Mayor Pete.” The watchdog contends DOT failed to live up to its legal obligations in responding to the request about the movie profiling current Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s life prior to his joining the Department.

With the movie’s debut occurring during his tenure at the DOT helm, questions naturally arose regarding whether any officials in the Department improperly used official time and resources to facilitate or promote the film highlighting the Secretary. Such activities could run afoul of federal ethics laws and regulations. The presence of a high-profile movie about the head of a federal agency presents a prime opportunity for such behavior to occur. Recent news reports reveal instances of those close to high-ranking officials capitalizing on these officials’ celebrity and influence in potentially unethical ways. PPT submitted the request after release of the film requesting records from DOT relating to the movie, its production, and release.

DOT estimated in early February that PPT could have records by the end of that month. No records were forthcoming at that time, nor at the end of the next month. In fact, that communication just shy of two months ago was the last word DOT has provided PPT regarding the request. Even in the wake of Attorney General Merrick Garland’s memorandum declaring, “Transparency in government operations is a priority of this Administration,” DOT appears unwilling to not only provide that transparency but to live up to its own statements.

“The premiere of a movie featuring the Department head is precisely the type of event that creates a heightened potential for ethical misconduct,” Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust declared. “Despite their earlier pronouncements, DOT seems to want to avoid the transparency that might expose any ethical missteps. The public can draw their own conclusions from that. This episode represents yet another case in which agencies have failed to exemplify the administration’s stated commitments to ethics and transparency.”