Aug 10, 2022 - Politics

Town Talker: Mayor Bowser's FOIA record

Illustration of the Lincoln Memorial with his hand up to his ear, listening to gossip.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Bulletin for Mayor Bowser: FOIA denials have soared to an 11-year high under your leadership.

Why it matters: Freedom of Information Act requests give the public access to government documents, which can expose malfeasance and shine a light on doings at City Hall. 

By the numbers: The Bowser administration denied in whole 9.5% of FOIA requests filed last year, per my count from annual reports

  • As it happens, Bowser is in company with her Green Team mentor, former Mayor Adrian Fenty, who had an 11.8% FOIA denial rate in 2009. 

Keeping them honest: In 2014, Bowser ran on improving government transparency. But like most pols who get into office, that pledge hasn't always held up. 

Reporters are constantly stonewalled in public records requests. Upon my persistent inquiries about one FOIA request this past spring, the mayor's associate general counsel Tenette Smith told me via email that “we have received an unprecedented number of requests.” 

Fact check: This made me curious to see just how many requests were pouring in.

  • So I filed a FOIA request for a list of each FOIA request filed year to date. (Very meta, I know.)

That was on April 27. By law, the government has 15 business days to respond to a request.

  • I’m still waiting for proof of the “unprecedented number of requests.”

For what it’s worth: The number of FOIA requests for D.C. government fell between 2019 and 2021 by 1,181 queries, according to the annual reports. We don’t know the 2022 numbers yet.

🥊 FOIA Fight: The Washington Post wants to depose Muriel Bowser in its lawsuit involving WhatsApp.

Flashback: In June 2021, the Post sued the city government for access to Bowser’s emails and WhatsApp communications in the days before and after the Capitol insurrection. 

  • My investigative report found WhatsApp was widely used in the Bowser administration, potentially imperiling public records. Council members subsequently passed a law to strengthen the FOIA law. 

The Post lawsuit has dragged on. The city says in filings that such 1/6 communications don’t exist, but D.C. Superior Court Judge Yvonne Williams allowed the case to move forward.

What’s next: The District is resisting having the Post’s lawyers depose the mayor.

  • The Post “fails to show that a deposition of the Mayor in this case would not be overly burdensome and unwarranted,” Attorney General Karl Racine wrote in the District’s defense in a June 23 filing.

Town Talker is a weekly column on local politics and power. Send tips: [email protected]


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