Fund for a Conservative Majority v. FEC (84-1342)
On February 26, 1985, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted summary judgment to the FEC in Fund for a Conservative Majority v. FEC. (Civil Action No. 84-1342.) The court held that the Commission was justified in refusing to disclose documents pertaining to the agency's audit and review procedures, which FCM sought under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). (FCM is a nonconnected political committee, which the FEC had proposed to audit based on the Commission's review of FCM's reports and its determination that FCM had not met the agency's requirements for substantial compliance with the law's reporting provisions.)
In its suit, FCM challenged the FEC's refusal to disclose documents setting forth the agency's threshold requirements for auditing committees, as well as FEC staff recommendations detailing FCM's failure to meet them. In upholding the FEC's action, the court noted that the agency had justifiably withheld information exempt under section 552(b)(2) of the FOIA. Under this provision, "matters that are...related solely to internal personnel rules and practices" may be exempted from disclosure. The FEC's action met the standards for applying this exemption, which were set forth in Crooker v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, (670 F.2d 1051, D.C. Cir. 1981). First, the undisclosed information was "predominantly internal," and did not constitute "secret law." In this regard, the court noted "the Commission's threshold requirements are not secret law because they made 'no attempt to modify or regulate public behavior-only to observe it for illegal activity.'" Id. at 1075. "The information at issue here is simply used to review Commission reports for substantial compliance with [the reporting] rules" published in the U.S. Code and accompanying regulations. "The plaintiff's argument that it is 'in the dark' as to how to pass that review is especially weak in light of the many letters it has received from the Commission, advising and pointing out apparent reporting inconsistencies and irregularities."
Under the second standard for applying the exemption for internal practices, the disclosed information must "significantly risk circumvention of agency regulations and statutes." (See Crooker at 1074.) In this instance, the court agreed with the Commission that disclosure of the threshold requirements "would enable unscrupulous political committees to tailor their reports to avoid being audited, and ignore statutory reporting requirements that are not central to the internal review procedures."
The FEC had also invoked section 552(b)(7)(E) of the FOIA to justify withholding portions of agency documents pertaining to the compliance thresholds FCM had failed to meet. This provision exempts " 'investigatory records compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such records would...disclose investigative techniques.'" The court found that the information withheld by the FEC met the requirements of this exemption, specifically, the information: (1) constituted an " 'investigative record'" and (2) had been " 'compiled for law enforcement purposes.'" Pratt v. Webster, 673 F.2d 408, 413 (D.C. Cir. 1982). The court pointed out that the federal election law specifically requires the Commission to review Committee reports.
Source: FEC Record — June 1985. Fund for a Conservative Majority v. FEC, No. 84-1342 (D.D.C. February 26, 1985).