FOI Update: AP FOIA request? That’ll be $1 million, please.

When The Associated Press asked the Labor Department for secret email addresses of appointed administration employees, the department initially told them it would cost $1 million.

The AP learned that government officials were conducting business via private or “alternative” email addresses last year from an Environmental Protection Agency administrator, according to The Atlantic Wire.

In a press briefing on June 4, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the practice helped officials prevent their inboxes from overflowing with unwanted messages. He assured journalists and citizens there was nothing lurking behind the private emails they couldn’t access by submitting a FOIA request.

“Let’s be clear — this is a practice consistent with prior administrations of both parties, and, as the story itself made clear, any FOIA request or congressional inquiry includes a search in all of the email accounts used by any political appointee,” Carney said.

But the AP submitted requests to several government agencies for the email addresses about three months ago, and so far, responses have been spotty.

Ten agencies say they’re still processing requests, and two agencies, the Health and Human Services Department and the Interior Department, have been reluctant to release certain employee’s email addresses or (unsuccessfully) requested that the AP keep those addresses quiet.

But the strangest (and most alarming) response came from the Labor Department, which told the AP that their FOIA request would cost more than $1.03 million to process, and even if the AP paid, they said finding the emails would still take 14 weeks.

According to the AP: “(The department) said it needed to pull 2,236 computer backup tapes from its archives and pay 50 people to pore over old records. Those costs included three weeks to identify tapes and ship them to a vendor, and pay each person $2,500 for nearly a month’s work.”

Of course, the department later admitted that asking for that much money is against its own FOIA rules (the same rules it cited asking AP for the money in the first place), and it provided the email addresses.

According to FOIA.gov, there is no initial fee required to submit a FOIA request, but the agency can charge for the time it takes to search for records and duplicate them, typically after the first two hours of search time or the first 100 pages of duplication.

FOIA.gov says:

“You may always include in your request letter a specific statement limiting the amount that you are willing to pay in fees. If an agency estimates that the total fees for processing your request will exceed $25, it will notify you in writing of the estimate and offer you an opportunity to narrow your request in order to reduce the fees.”

Luckily, the AP enforced their rights instead of narrowing their request.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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