The Freedom From Religion Foundation successfully settled a federal lawsuit April 23 over the denial of its Freedom of Information Act request by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
FFRF teamed up with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a governmental watchdog, after HUD Secretary Ben Carson dodged records requests related to the White House bible study.
FFRF and CREW filed suit in January 2018 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging HUD’s pattern and practice of denying fee waivers on FOIA requests where disclosure of the documents was “likely to cast the agency or HUD secretary in a negative light.”
FFRF and CREW have subsequently received the desired documents. In the settlement, HUD has agreed to address the remaining issues by offering two sessions of in-person mandatory fee waiver training for the FOIA office, issuing updated fee waiver guidance for employees, and paying costs and attorneys’ fees to the plaintiffs ($14,400 to CREW and $3,400 to FFRF).
“One of the major benefits is that the updated training and guidance will ensure that citizens and groups will have access to agency records,” explains FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott. It is FFRF’s information and understanding that HUD had been illegally rejecting requests to waive fees. The lawsuit has remedied that situation by forcing the agency to give FFRF and CREW the records without charge and by promising to hold trainings to update staff.
In addition to seeking records that were related to the White House bible study, FFRF had asked for records related to Carson’s attendance at an event at the Museum of the Bible.
“Government needs to work in sunlight,” comments FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “Our lawsuit has ensured that should be happening in the future at HUD.”
The case was before U.S. District Judge Carl J. Nichols. Anne Weismann, chief FOIA counsel for CREW, and Patrick Elliott, senior counsel for FFRF, represented the plaintiffs.