Tennessee city files FOI suit against federal agency

Thursday, October 21, 1999

The city of Knoxville, Tenn., has filed a federal lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority, alleging the agency has violated the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The lawsuit, filed earlier this month, alleges that TVA failed to supply documents requested by the city by the 20-day deadline required under the FOIA and that the agency illegally withheld certain records.

“They delayed unreasonably, and when they did respond, it was insufficient and incomplete,” city legal director Michael Kelley told The Knoxville News-Sentinel. Kelley did not return calls from the First Amendment Center Online.

TVA spokesman Gil Francis said the agency had “responded to a number of questions from the city.”

“Obviously these requests do take time and expense to process,” Francis told the First Amendment Center Online. He said he would make no further comment until he had reviewed the suit, Kelley v. Tennessee Valley Authority.

The requested documents concerned the proposed move of TVA’s economic development office from Knoxville to Nashville; a consulting firm retained by the agency to assess the move; and TVA-funded travel between the United States and China by TVA and Chinese officials.

According to the city’s lawsuit filed on Oct. 6, Kelley submitted his first request to Wilma McCauley, TVA’s FOIA officer, on May 14, asking for all records relating to the Nashville move. Kelley amended the request on June 3 to include documents concerning MetaPower, LLC, the Vancouver, Wash., firm that provided a study on the proposed move.

Kelley submitted another letter on June 11, requesting records on travel to and within the United States by Chinese officials and to China by TVA officials.

McCauley responded to Kelley in a June 15 letter, stating that his requests were quite extensive and could not be completed by the 20-workday deadline because of “unusual circumstances.” These circumstances included searching for documents at several TVA locations and forwarding documents containing information on outside sources to those sources for their review.

According to the lawsuit, McCauley later told Kelley in a phone conversation that she had collected some documents and was searching for others but all the documents would not be ready by the deadline. Kelley said the city did not object to such a delay but wanted all the documents that had been located by the deadline. The lawsuit states that McCauley agreed to supply the documents, but failed to respond by the appointed date.

In a letter dated July 9, Kelley submitted his “final request for TVA to comply voluntarily with its statutory obligations under the [FOIA].”

“The Freedom of Information Act was designed to remove the cloak of secrecy from decisions made by public officials with public dollars,” Kelley wrote. “I can draw only one conclusion from TVA’s delay in providing even one document to the City: TVA wants to retain that cloak as long as possible.”

According to the lawsuit, TVA did not submit any documents until 45 days after the deadline. On July 23, McCauley sent Kelley several documents but refused to release others, claiming FOIA exemptions. Kelley appealed TVA’s decision, but in a letter dated Aug. 13, TVA “denied the vast majority of the [city's] appeal,” the lawsuit states.

The city is asking District Judge Curtis Collier to declare TVA’s refusal to disclose some records unlawful and to determine if some non-exempt material can be separated from material which may be subject to FOIA exemptions.

The city also is asking Collier to order TVA to supply the requested documents, to determine if TVA failed to comply with required deadlines for producing the documents and to award costs and attorneys’ fees.

A hearing date has not been set.