Office of Management and Budget’s Mismanagement of FOIA Prompts Lawsuit

Office of Management and Budget’s Mismanagement of FOIA Prompts Lawsuit

  • April 28, 2022

PPT sues over request nearly a year old

Today, federal watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust announced a transparency lawsuit against the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The suit involves a nearly year-old Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for ethics documents from the agency.

OMB was one of 19 agencies from which PPT sought records of ethics waivers and decisions exempting political appointees from obligations to the Biden Ethics Pledge or federal ethics obligations in June 2021. These documents are vital in understanding which high-level officials have potential conflicts of interest and how each agency is addressing these conflicts.

As we discussed recently, OMB granted two controversial conflict of interest waivers to Mina Hsiang, Administrator of the U.S. Digital Service. These waivers, which apply to companies in which Hsiang has significant investments through trusts and hedge funds, have come under fire, with one ethics watchdog urging the Biden Administration to rescind them. It is unclear whether that group obtained these waivers directly from OMB or from another source. However, OMB has not released the documents to PPT in response to our FOIA, despite them being clearly responsive to our request.

As we point out in our lawsuit, on the campaign trail, the Biden campaign pledged to “[r]estore ethics in government” and “[r]ein in Executive Branch financial conflicts of interest,” and, in the words of a former ethics chief, “promised a legislative overhaul of the federal government’s ethics and anticorruption systems.” In addition, Attorney General Merrick Garland’s 2022 Sunshine Week memo proclaimed the administration’s commitment to transparency and declared FOIA “a vital tool for ensuring transparency, accessibility, and accountability in government” whose “‘basic purpose . . . is to ensure an informed citizenry,’ which is ‘vital to the functioning of a democratic society [and] needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.’”

“The administration says all the right things when it comes to ethics compliance, but the message does not appear to have filtered down to the leadership at OMB,” stated Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “Despite its small size, it has issued more waivers than much larger agencies, such as Homeland Security and Commerce, including some waivers that raise serious red flags. OMB has also apparently found compliance with their FOIA obligations extremely difficult, leaving us with no other recourse to obtain this vital information for the American public.”