Vol. XVI, No. 3
FOIA Focus: Charlene W. Thomas
Within the various departments and agencies of the executive branch, there are many professional opportunities for talented people who are willing to work hard, develop skills, gain on-the-job experience, and advance to positions of greater responsibility. Since the federal government began implementing the Freedom of Information Act nearly thirty years ago, a range of FOIA-related employment possibilities has opened up, creating new opportunities for individual professional development and advancement. Today, it is not uncommon to find FOIA personnel who began their careers at the clerical or secretarial level, became involved in the processes of FOIA administration, and then advanced to reviewer positions and other positions of increasing supervisory responsibility.
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"I have worked in the FOIA area here in the Office of Information and Privacy for more than fifteen years," says Charlene Wright Thomas, Chief of OIP's Initial Request Unit, "and it has been a great opportunity for professional development." Thomas was hired as the head secretary of one of OIP's predecessor offices in 1980 and she is one of several former OIP secretaries to have advanced to positions on OIP's professional staff.
In her secretarial position in OIP during the early 1980s, one of Thomas's responsibilities was to act as recording secretary at meetings of the Justice Department's Department Review Committee, an intra-agency group that meets once a month to review appeals of requests for classified information. "Rather than simply transcribing my notes, I considered this an excellent training opportunity, so I listened to the analyses and deliberations, and the references to leading case law," Thomas points out. Similarly, when answering the telephone, such as on OIP's FOIA Counselor line, she often would discuss a legal question or concern with a caller and then convey that information to the OIP attorney or paralegal involved. She soon became quite conversant with many aspects of the Act.
In January of 1983, Thomas took an opportunity to become a Legal Technician. To do this, she had to change her job series and be downgraded from a GS-8 to a GS-6. This change involved a drop in salary that took two years to make up. "But it was the best opportunity I ever had and it was the best decision I ever made," Thomas recalls. "In fact, I was the second head secretary at OIP to make this transition." Within the next few years, two additional secretaries would follow suit.
As a Legal Technician assigned to OIP's Initial Request Unit, Thomas conducted document searches and processed documents in response to FOIA requests for records from the Offices of the Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General, and the Associate Attorney General. "I learned how the Department of Justice works and how departmental records are maintained and stored," she says.
In 1985, based upon her experience, Thomas was able to become a Paralegal Specialist in OIP's Classification Review Unit, where she processed appeals involving classified records. After about a year, she rotated back to initial requests. In 1986, she became the Supervisory Paralegal Specialist in charge of the Initial Request Unit. Two years later, she was named Chief of the unit. In that GS-14 position, she handles any substantive matter that comes to the unit, assigns cases, hires and trains paralegals, and works on case tracking and review.
Thomas is a strong believer in developing a good rapport with FOIA requesters. Recently, she received a letter requesting records about a defunct drug task force. "The letter was vague and it would have been impossible to locate the responsive records," she remembers. So Thomas telephoned the requester to tell him where she thought the records might be found and how to reformulate his request. Taking her advice, the requester rewrote his letter and ultimately received the records he wanted. The requester then wrote to the Justice Department's Office of Public Affairs praising Thomas's initiative. Public Affairs Director Carl Stern forwarded that letter to the Attorney General, who in her bimonthly Justice Department newsletter cited Thomas's work as an example of good "customer service."
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Charlene Wright Thomas was born and raised in Washington, D.C., where she graduated from Burdick High School in 1974. She lives in Temple Hills, Maryland with her husband George, who is employed by the Defense Mapping Agency. Their daughter, Takia, is a freshman at Howard University's School of Business, which she is attending on a full four-year academic scholarship.
After graduating from high school, Thomas worked as a clerk in the Redevelopment Land Agency. In 1977, she moved to a secretarial position in the Office of Chief Counsel at the Federal Railroad Administration, where she first became familiar with the FOIA. Then she joined the Justice Department and developed her FOIA expertise.
"I really enjoy what I do," Thomas says. "My positions in this office have presented opportunities for me to learn so much. This is my graduate school -- I feel as though I have continued my education right here on the job."
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