Between crumbling finances, tense relations with Congress, and three major labor contracts still to hammer out, you might think the U.S. Postal Service has better things to do than pick an open records fight with another government agency.
Not according to the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
In a federal lawsuit filed this month, the commission charges the Postal Service with “improperly” claiming exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act to withhold information needed to show that a former elected official broke the law. To underscore its displeasure, the commission also put out a a news release in which Chairwoman Ann Ravel called the Postal Service’s stance “bizarre,” adding that USPS officials have routinely provided such information in the past. Because the Postal Service’s current position would also halt enforcement of similar laws in other states, Ravel said, “we feel compelled to take action.”
Citing the lawsuit, USPS spokesman Dave Partenheimer declined any comment.
The standoff has its origins in a 2008 recall election involving William Eisen, then an L.A.-area local school board member. According to the commission, Eisen allegedly sent out two mailings opposing his recall, but “falsely indicated” that a taxpayers’ group and regional political club were responsible. To make its case, however, the commission needs to know how many pieces of mail were sent out under Eisen’s bulk mailing permit number around the time of the alleged violation.
That’s what the Postal Service has refused to provide, on the grounds that the information is proprietary and “would not be a good business practice to disclose” under the FOIA, according to the lawsuit.
Backing the Postal Service’s position is the Office of Government Information Services, a kind of ombudsman at the National Archives and Records Administration. Despite President Obama’s instructions for agencies to administer the Freedom of Information Act with a presumption of openness, the Postal Service, which is basically self-supporting, “has commercial considerations that other agencies may not have and properly applied the exemptions under the guise of good business practices,” the lawsuit says in summarizing OGIS’ view.
As to the man behind the fracas, Eisen was in fact recalled, but has denied any wrongdoing, according to press accounts.