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Government accountability group sues DOJ for withholding "Public Comments" under FOIA request

DOJ is accused of "obfuscating, delaying, and failing in its lawful duty" by not cooperating with the FOIA request. The records sought are "Public Comments" regarding a superfund deal negotiated by former EPA employee

Published: August 21, 2023 12:20pm

A watchdog group committed to governmental transparency announced Monday a lawsuit against the Department of Justice (DOJ) to "force" it to hand over certain FOIA’d documents.

Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT) filed the lawsuit last week "seeking declaratory and injunctive relief to compel compliance" with a FOIA request for "public comments received by DOJ" pertaining to a proposed consent decree for the Diamond Alkali Superfund Site located on New Jersey’s Lower Passaic River.

Last December, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and DOJ announced that 85 companies were settling for a combined $150 million after allegedly polluting in the waterway, even though the EPA estimated the cleanup cost to be $1.82 billion.

In April, PPT alleged that former EPA employee David Batson may have violated a "Lifetime Ban" law by being a "primary negotiator" in the cleanup project with companies that he was involved with "on the same issue as a federal official."

The DOJ describes the "Lifetime Ban" as when "an employee is prohibited from communicating with or appearing before the government on a particular matter involving specific parties in which the employee participated personally and substantially during government service," per the DOJ’s website.

"PPT has sought to unravel the complex and ethically questionable role that Mr. Batson played in last year’s proposed consent decree," the group’s press release says. It’s "submitted numerous FOIA requests including asking for the public comments received by the DOJ on this consent decree."

DOJ has "dragged out" the FOIA, and their court filing says that DOJ has stonewalled PTP for 65 days, and "redirected the request within the agency, dubiously claimed that some documents might be exempted, and ignored PPT’s request to receive documents as they became available."

DOJ Attorney General Merrick Garland once referred to FOIA requests as "a vital tool for ensuring transparency, accessibility, and accountability in government," PPT Director Michael Chamberlain pointed out in the announcement. "Yet his very own agency… is obfuscating, delaying, and failing in its lawful duty on even the simplest and most straightforward request."

The DOJ has already faced at least two other lawsuits this year for reportedly not complying with FOIA requests: one over its response to pro-abortion rioters’ attacks on pregnancy centers and other organizations, and another pertaining to an internal memo warning against "radical traditionalist Catholic ideology."

The case is assigned to controversial Federal District Court Judge Reggie Walton. Walton recently sentenced one of the January 6 rioters to 40 months in prison, and also vacated the court-martial of accused deserter Bowe Bergdahl.

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