The Office of Inspector General recently completed a compliance audit of the Federal Election Commission's enforcement of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The audit covered Calendar Year 1994. The objective of our audit was to determine if the Federal Election Commission (FEC) was in compliance with key administrative provisions of the Freedom Of Information Act.
This compliance audit was designed to provide reasonable assurance about compliance with FOIA. In complying with Government auditing standards, we obtained an understanding of management controls relevant to this audit. Management is responsible for establishing effective controls. Controls over compliance with laws and regulations include policies and procedures that management has implemented to reasonably ensure that resource use is consistent with laws and regulations. Key administrative procedures include the following:
(1) notifying the requester within ten (10) work days of the agency decision to provide, or not provide, the information.
(2) searching for, retrieving documents.
(3) reviewing documents to determine whether they should be released or denied under the nine (9) specific FOIA exemptions.
The FOIA, as amended in 1976, provides the basic authority and procedures for the public to obtain documents from the executive branch of the federal government. The Act states that agencies are to determine within ten (10) working days after receipt of a FOIA request whether to comply and then are to immediately notify the requester of their decision. A FOIA request is a request made by the public, in writing, for non-exempt government records/information which have not already been made public.
The Act also provides that an agency can grant itself an extension of up to ten (10) working days in particular circumstances. When a requester has not received the agency's decision within these time limits, the requester may seek legal action through a federal district court. According to the Act, "if the government can show exceptional circumstances exist and that the agency is exercising due diligence in responding to the request," the court may allow the agency additional time to complete its review of the request.
In order to determine compliance with the Act we reviewed the overall structure in place to implement the Act and the current indexes identifying available information. Additionally, we reviewed the adequacy of administrative procedures in place to process requests and the reliability and accuracy of statistics reported in the annual report to Congress and the FEC Annual Report for CY 1994.
Our compliance audit found that a structure is in place to implement the Act and identifying information indexes were made available. However, we are making recommendations to strengthen compliance with administrative procedures and reporting requirements. The following summarizes the findings and recommendations, management's response to the findings and the OIG conclusions. A more detailed discussion of each finding, including criteria, is contained in the report narrative.
For Calendar Year 1994, the manual log contained incomplete entries and lacked, in some cases, dates of the initial response to requester on the decision as to whether to provide the information or not. Also, entries did not include relevant information regarding the requester, legal review and final disposition of the request. There were two oral requests entered in the manual log.
The FOIA and FEC regulation contains administrative requirements which address the timelines of the response to the request, legal review for release and final disposition of the request. A current manual log of FOIA activity documents compliance with these administrative procedures, particularly the ten (10) day response requirement.
We recommended that the log be revised and the acceptance of oral requests be discontinued.
Management agreed to revise and the log but will continue to process oral requests. While the OIG acknowledges that the FOIA Officer intends to revise the log, we disagree with the decision to process oral requests.
The FEC is not in compliance with the requirement to collect fees unless waived for certain groups.
We recommended that the FOIA Officer identify those groups that will have fees waived or reduced. If fees are to be charged for certain groups, the FOIA Officer should determine an amount above which a fee will be charged. In accordance the Act and the FEC regulation, the FOIA Officer should charge commercial users and remit the funds to the U.S. Treasury.
Management stated that in order to avoid confusion in the future, the new log will stipulate fees and reasons for waivers. The OIG agreed with management's response.
The CY 1994 Report to Congress was not submitted on March 1, 1995 as required.
The report should be submitted to Congress by the FOIA Officer by March 1 of each year. The report should be based on the number of FOIA requests entered in the manual log.
Management responded that the delays were due to staff transitions and workload. One report covering both Calendar Years 1994 and 1995 is being prepared. We agreed with management's response.
The CY 1994 FEC Annual Report overstated both the number and cost of FOIA requests because the statistics included non-FOIA requests. Of the 645 requests reported, there were 500 Direct Access Program (DAP) requests and 62 requests for computer tapes. The cost fees for materials requested under FOIA was reported to be $20,960. This was associated with the cost of processing computer tapes.
We recommended that the DAP and computer tape program not be processed and reported as a FOIA request since this information has already been made public.
Management responded that this program is appropriately processed under FOIA in order to minimize financial loss to the agency. Furthermore, the tracking system is simple and has not been burdensome for the FOIA Office. Even though we do not agree that these are FOIA requests, the OIG will accept management's response.