A federal lawsuit was filed today by the Washington Examiner seeking 335 pages of public documents withheld by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau about its costly renovation of an office building near the White House.
The Examiner filed a civil complaint against the CFPB under the federal Freedom of Information Act following eight months of bureau refusals to release its financial and design records of the renovation of its Washington headquarters.
The suit was filed this morning in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Judicial Watch, the nonprofit government watchdog group, filed the complaint on behalf of the Examiner.
The lawsuit asks the court to order CFPB to demonstrate its search methods were responsive to the Examiner's request and compel the bureau to release by a certain date all the documents that are permitted under the FOIA law.
The suit also asks the court to instruct CFPB to compile a "Vaughn index" of all withheld documents. The index identifies specific documents that were withheld and explains how release of the records could damage a party. The bureau previously refused to release a Vaughn index.
"Documents to explain why a government bureau is spending so lavishly on renovations to its headquarters are exactly the kind of information the FOIA is meant to make available to taxpayers," said Examiner Executive Editor Mark Tapscott.
"We shouldn't have to go to court to get them, but it's important to make the point that the American people have just as much of a right to know what CFPB is doing with their tax dollars as they do their local dogcatchers," Tapscott said.
The building is at 1700 G St. NW., across the street from the White House complex. The structure was built between 1974 and 1976.
Oversight of the renovation effort was recently transferred from CFPB to the General Services Administration, the federal government's main housekeeping agency.
The GSA told the Examiner that it will charge CFPB $13.3 million to manage the project on a day-to-day basis.
The Examiner filed its initial request for the documents on July 24 under FOIA. The request was for financial records of the renovation, as well as documents describing materials, composites and architectural designs.
CFPB has treated the architectural design features of the building and its property as a closely guarded secret. The agency has retained Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, an elite architectural firm to design the building. To date it has paid the firm $9.2 million.
Agency officials told the Examiner on Sept. 19 that officials had located 257 pages that were responsive to the request, but were withholding 254 pages. On Dec. 19, another 93 pages were located but 81 pages were held back.
Most of the documents CFPB has released are heavily redacted. Typical is an April 29, 2013, email from Suzanne Tosini to the agency’s leadership including CFPB Chief Financial Officer Stephen Agostini about the renovation. Tosini is the agency's chief administrative officer.
The subject of Tosini's email is "draft of lease vs renovate memo."
“Good morning all,” Tosini wrote in the email. “I did this as an info memo — let me know if that isn’t correct.” The memo is not included in its release of documents.
Another email on Feb. 4, 2012, titled “Draft Statement of Work for Design of 1700 G Street, NW” was totally redacted. The attachments include "lobby and courtyard concept design" and plans for the 180,000-square-foot basement.
A Feb. 3, 2012, email from David Gragan, then the agency’s assistant director for procurement, said, “Please read the attached documents in the following order: a. SOW (Statement of Work) Cover Memo; b. Attachment 1 (This is the draft SOW); and c. Attachment 2 (A more thorough explanation of the procurement method we ware using.”
None of the attachments were made public.
Similarly, a Jan. 31, 2013, email from the unnamed CFPB executive secretary says, “See attached. RC [CFPB Director Richard Cordray] has approved the attached Decision Memo re: Phasing Options and Swing Space During Renovation of 1700 G Street.”
No attachment was made public.
A Jan. 30, 2013, “Decision Memorandum” approved by Cordray listed the occupancy agreement with GSA. It is entirely blank.
Similarly, a July 16, 2013, email from Janani Ramachandran, a finance and policy analyst for the agency's CFO sent to multiple CFPB officials and said, "I've also attached a file from Mike Davis with his cost estimates vs. GSA's.
No attachments were made public.
In a Feb. 10 denial letter to the Examiner, CFPB invoked the FOIA's Exemption 5 and 6 to justify withholding the documents.
Exemption 5 allows documents to be withheld from disclosure based on, “the deliberative process privilege, which protects agency documents that are both pre-decisional and deliberative,” according to David M. Gosett, the CFPB’s assistant general counsel.
Exemption 6 is an exemption that invokes "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said his group is representing the Examiner in the case because “from its inception, the CFPB has been placed dangerously out of reach of the American people.
"And it has acted with arrogant indifference to attempts to pierce its veil of obdurate secrecy. This lawsuit could help shed some much-needed light on what is otherwise an essentially covert operation with oppressive control over consumer finances.”