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Labor Department and DOT Hold FOIA Conferences

With the support and encouragement of the Office of Information and Privacy, a growing number of federal departments and agencies are holding agencywide Freedom of Information Act conferences for the training and professional development of their FOIA personnel.

Last week, for example, both the Department of Labor and the Department of Transportation held nationwide conferences for their agencies' FOIA officers in Washington, D.C., as they gathered their employees for an up-to-date review of FOIA policy, applicable case law, and the procedures used in the Act's administration at those agencies.

The Department of Labor's conference, which was held on February 12-13, was organized by Miriam McD. Miller, a longtime FOIA professional who serves as the Labor Department's Co-Counsel for Administrative Law, together with Robert A. Shapiro, Labor's Associate Solicitor for Legislation and Legal Counsel. It included specialized training sessions on the FOIA's exemptions, its administrative appeals process, records-management practices, and proper coordination of the handling of FOIA requests among Labor's many subagencies.

The keynote presentation at this conference was made by OIP Co-Director Daniel J. Metcalfe, who addressed a range of current FOIA policy, administrative, and litigation issues -- including the Attorney General's FOIA Memorandum of October 12, 2001, the effects of anthrax-related mail delays on the processes of FOIA administration, and the protection of critical infrastructure information under Exemption 2 in a post-September 11 environment. Approximately 300 Labor Department employees from around the country attended.

The Department of Transportation began its FOIA conference a day later. It lasted two days as well, and it was organized by Pat Riep-Dice, another FOIA veteran, who now serves as the Transportation Department's principal FOIA officer. DOT's program covered administrative procedures, Federal Records Act issues, and selected FOIA exemptions particularly applicable to that agency. Special attention was paid to the scope of a new Exemption 3 statute that pertains to the vulnerability of transportation systems.

Policy presentations at this conference were made by both OIP Co-Director Richard L. Huff and OIP Deputy Director Melanie Ann Pustay, who also answered questions on both the new Attorney General's FOIA Memorandum and the scope of Exemption 4. More than 100 Transportation Department employees, including many from field and port installations, attended. In addition, this program included some training on the Privacy Act as well, as did the Labor Department's conference, to round out the instruction.

These agencywide FOIA programs are just the most recent examples of such sessions, which are now held in increasing numbers by cabinet departments and smaller agencies alike. In some cases, subagencies or major components of agencies conduct their own FOIA conferences or training programs. Recent examples of these include the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of the Army, and the Defense Contract Audit Agency, which conducted sessions in Missouri, West Virginia, Florida, and Virginia, respectively, with support from OIP.

Every year, the agencies or major subagencies that conduct such sessions with OIP's assistance are listed in the Department of Justice's Freedom of Information Act Report to Congress, which is submitted by April 1 of each year. As shown in last year's report, such individualized training sessions were held by the Library of Congress, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Agency for International Development, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, and the new Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency; by the Departments of Transportation, Health and Human Services, Energy, and the Navy; and by several individual components of the Department of Justice, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The agency that is perhaps the most experienced at holding FOIA conferences is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which has held a multiple-day agencywide FOIA conference each year, at different space centers around the country, for the past fifteen years. OIP Co-Director Richard L. Huff has spoken at these NASA conferences for more than a dozen years and, until recently, they were coordinated by Pat Riep-Dice. When Riep-Dice moved to the Department of Transportation more than a year ago, she brought with her a strong belief in the value that such conferences hold, which led to the scheduling of Transportation's conference this year. NASA's next FOIA conference will be held on June 12-14 of this year.

Other agencies that have recognized the value of FOIA conferences and agency-specific FOIA-training programs include the Department of Energy -- which has held FOIA conferences at different locations around the country on a biennial basis during the past decade -- and the National Labor Relations Board and the Department of State, each of which has held a major FOIA conference within the past year. These agencies, too, have set strong examples for other agencies to follow.

Such individual agency FOIA-training programs, especially the ones conducted as a nationwide "FOIA Conference" for all agency FOIA personnel, serve to complement the governmentwide FOIA training that is provided by the Department of Justice. In addition to conducting a wide range of FOIA-training programs that are available to all federal agencies -- see FOIA Post, "FOIA Training Opportunities, Fiscal Year 2002" (posted 9/14/01) -- the Office of Information and Privacy encourages all agencies to hold their own agency-specific FOIA programs, including full nationwide FOIA conferences, wherever possible in order to enhance the administration of the Act.

Any agency, subagency, or major agency component that is interested in developing such a FOIA-training program may contact OIP's Training Officer, Bertina Adams Cleveland, to discuss the type of FOIA program that might be developed and conducted with OIP's support.   (posted 2/22/02)

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