Judge ends CREW search for Justice Dept. documents on ex-California congressman

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 12, 2014 


The seal of the Department of Justice


A long and pretty successful FOIA fight has ended, as a federal judge says the Justice Department has met its obligations to provide documents concerning former California congressman Jerry Lewis.

Make no mistake. While the immediate decision went against Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, it underscored what CREW had already accomplished through its Freedom of Information Act litigation.

This is how U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg put it in his 16-page decision dated Wednesday.

“As Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, former Congressman Jerry Lewis(R-CA) had substantial say over the fate of billions of federal dollars. When some of those funds landed in the hands of clients of Lewis’s close friends – and when those friends and clients donated some 37 percent of the $1.3 million that Lewis’s political action committee received from 1999 to 2005 – a federal investigation followed. Nothing came of that inquiry, though, and the Department of Justice ultimately declined to press charges.

Perhaps suspicious of that outcome, Plaintiff Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, brought this action under the Freedom of Information Act seeking records related to the Department’s decision not to charge Lewis with a crime,” Boasberg summed up.

The Justice Department originally stiff-armed CREW. Following an earlier court ruling, though, the department released over 2,000 pages of documents. These became the basis of a CREW report, but the organization wanted additional documents as well. More than 25,000 pages were reportedly being held back.

Reading between the lines in the latest decision, Judge Boasberg suggests some dissatisfaction with the Justice Department’s recalcitrance, even as he rules the department has finally met its duty under the law to explain why the additional documents should be withheld.

“Nearly three years and more than two thousand man-hours after this controversy, began, the Court can finally conclude that Defendant has satisfied its FOIA obligations,” Boasberg wrote.

On the merits, Boasberg agreed that the Justice Department had shown the withheld documents fit under various FOIA exemptions, such as those covering “attorney work product.”

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