FOIA exposes a secret, and vicious, government gossip sheet

  • 5 January 2018
  • NormanL
FOIA exposes a secret, and vicious, government gossip sheet

What do federal bureaucrats think of the private sector workers they regulate? According to an investigation by the Cause of Action Institute, not much. Following a tip from a whistleblower, the Institute put in a freedom of information request to NOAA, and got a copy of the agency's secret internal newsletter. What it contained was rather shocking:

According to records obtained by Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) from whistleblowers and under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) employees in the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office have long circulated a paper that often contains their candid feelings towards the fishermen with whom they are supposed to collaborate.

In one article, dated June 29, 2010, Port Agent Victor Vecchio, who works in the “Stakeholder Engagement Division,” described fishermen at a “groundfish outreach meeting” as spreading “various conspiracy theories,” at least until they “ran out of steam (or vodka . . . or whatever).”

Nice. Cause of Action asked for more information about the newsletter. That's when NOAA began to stonewall:

In response to an October 17, 2017 FOIA request, NOAA released a complete copy of its April 1-15, 2017 issue of Fathoms, which was heavily redacted to “protect” confidential commercial information.  The range of topics covered in the paper include news about enforcement actions, in-season events (such as the opening of the recreational fishery), the impact of weather patterns on fishing activity, and even scientific developments.  Much of this appears benign and, indeed, informative.  But, as expected, the issue also discusses the industry’s frustration with planned regulatory actions.  The entire content of that article was conspicuously redacted.

In addition to filling a follow-up request for all issues of Fathoms from December 2015 to the present, CoA Institute has filed an administrative appeal challenging NOAA’s heavy-handed redactions.  Exemption 4, which protects confidential commercial information, does not typically apply to government-generated information.  More importantly, the sort of information contained in Fathoms could hardly be described as “confidential” because it would neither impair NOAA’s ability to obtain information from fishermen in the future nor cause a competitive disadvantage to any part of the fishing industry.

It seems instead that NOAA is hiding behind an exemption designed to protect businesses in order to actually keep secret its criticism of businesses.  CoA Institute’s staff attorneys have spoken to a number of fishermen who are completely unaware of the existence of Fathoms.  Given the derision they likely receive in its pages, they are unlikely to be too pleased by NOAA’s efforts to block disclosure.

Nor should they be. Governments are supposed to serve the public interest, not publish secret gossip sheets insulting the public. But good on the CoA for getting this out there -- and here's hoping they are able to break NOAA's stonewall to get the whole story out in public view.