PPT Sues DOT over Transparency Regarding Ethics Documents

PPT Sues DOT over Transparency Regarding Ethics Documents

  • March 22, 2022

Agency has failed to live up to its legal obligations regarding the release of ethics records

Today, federal watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust announced a lawsuit against the Department of Transportation (DOT) seeking transparency for ethics documents. This is the second lawsuit PPT has filed against a federal department to enforce its legal rights under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain records related to ethics waivers, decisions, and guidance provided to political appointees that exempt them from ethical restrictions. In many cases agencies are refusing to deliver records and ignoring requests even as the restrictions for which the exemptions were granted have already or will soon expire.

DOT is just one of several agencies that PPT has discovered granted one or more waivers or other exemptions to federal ethics laws or the Biden Ethics Pledge to political appointees yet have failed to provide documents in response to PPT’s FOIA request. This information is critical for the American public to discern whether high-ranking officials are acting consistently with their ethics obligations. Furthermore, since some restrictions expire after a certain period of time, the utility of these documents often has a shelf-life.

According to his Certification of Ethics Agreement Compliance, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sought and received an authorization allowing him to participate in matters involving iHeartMedia, a former employer. But the American public has no idea of the scope of what the Transportation Secretary would then be permitted to do or prohibited from, since this document has not been made publicly available. Despite the fact the ethics restrictions concerning Secretary Buttigieg may have been in effect for just one year and may already have expired, DOT has been unwilling to comply with its legal obligations regarding PPT’s request, potentially depriving the American public access to these vital documents during the entire time they were valid.

Last week the Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memorandum providing FOIA guidelines to heads of executive departments and agencies in an effort to “strengthen the federal government’s commitment to the fair and effective administration of FOIA.” The Attorney General implored, “Timely disclosure of records is also essential to the core purpose of FOIA. Agencies must have effective systems in place for responding to requests in a timely manner.” DOT’s failure with this time-sensitive request illustrates the importance of this section of the memo.

“Federal agencies’ inability to comply with their legal obligations under FOIA can have far-reaching effects that further erode the American public’s already dismal level of trust in government,” Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust, said. “The public deserves to know when powerful officials have received waivers, exemptions, and authorizations to the ethics restrictions that normally would apply to them. Finding out what these are months, or years, after they are no longer in effect flies in the face of the commitment the government makes to those it is supposed to serve.”