In October 2013, CEI filed a FOIA request for policy emails that John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), kept on his private email account at his former employer, the environmental-pressure group Woods Hole Research Center. OSTP turned down the request, claiming that Holdren’s private account was outside its control and therefore wasn’t subject to FOIA.
CEI filed a lawsuit in May 2014 to force OSTP to produce the emails as the use of non-official accounts for agency business frustrates federal open-government laws, undermines government accountability, and evades congressional oversight efforts.
In a March 3, 2015 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler upheld the agency’s position. She ruled that FOIA applied only to agency records controlled by the agency, and that Holdren’s private email account was off-limits. CEI appealed this decision arguing that personal email accounts of the White House top science advisor, John Holdren, should not be off-limits from the Freedom of Information Act.
On August 10, 2015, CEI filed its opening brief before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In the brief, CEI argues that FOIA applies to the work-related records of agency employees regardless of where they are stored, and that agencies routinely instruct their staff to preserve any such documents that they have on their personal email accounts. OSTP staff, perhaps, were reluctant to challenge their director’s private email practices, but that in no way makes the policy legal. Given the growing scandals over other top officials’ private emails, a reversal of the lower court’s ruling is essential to putting teeth into FOIA, especially in light of President Obama’s claim that his administration is the most transparent in history.
On July 5 2016, the DC Circuit court ruled that agency records including “departmental emails on an account in another domain” must be searched or produced in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. This was a victory for CEI as the DC Circuit overturned a district court ruling and remanded that case back to the district court for further proceedings.
Note: CEI has filed another lawsuit against the OSTP over Holdren’s claims in a video about the polar vortex released in January 2014. View the lawsuit here.