FOIA expert raves about decision in uranium records case

Friday, March 30, 2001

A federal judge recently ordered the government to pay attorney’s fees for nuclear workers who successfully petitioned for transcripts of closed meetings in which U.S. officials decided to sell a government-owned corporation that produces enriched uranium.

U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler of the District of Columbia Circuit said the records serve a public benefit, revealing “the ways in which bias, self-interest and self-dealing can influence the deal-making process, especially when that process is kept entirely secretive.”

Kessler further stated that given the nature of lawsuits under the federal Freedom of Information Act and the importance of the records, the workers deserved an award for the fees.

One freedom-of-information advocate called the ruling “a thing of beauty.”

“The judge expressed her opinion that they (the workers) had performed a tremendous public service,” said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “That was both very unusual and very heartening. There are not a lot of judges sympathetic to the FOIA, much less such strong endorsers of it.”

The nuclear workers sought the records in the wake of a 1998 decision to sell the U.S. Enrichment Corp., a government company specializing in the production of enriched uranium. That decision was made in closed meetings.

Kessler determined that such records must be open for public viewing. Her decision on March 16 focused on whether the workers who filed the FOIA request were entitled to attorney’s fees.

Government attorneys said the workers should not be entitled to the fees, arguing that they had the very limited interest of just saving their jobs.

Kessler disagreed, saying the transcripts would be of interest to anyone studying efforts of government privatization and decision-making. She wrote that deliberations of the corporation’s board of directors “were a model of what not to do when considering various options for privatizing a federal entity.”

Aftergood said Kessler’s decision was quite bold, especially as corporate interests begin to dominate public policy.

Harry Hammitt, publisher of Access Reports, says that Kessler has come down with a few substantial FOIA rulings within the last couple of years, taking government officials to task for openness violations. He said he didn’t view her latest ruling as astounding but said it was a good that she held government responsible for paying attorney’s fees.

“Kessler certainly thinks this information was full with bits of important information as well as showed how lousy government had done in this instance,” Hammitt said.

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