Vol. VII, No. 3
FOIA Focus: L. Jeffrey Ross
Since the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, federal departments and agencies have created a variety of offices and units to handle the administrative processing and litigative aspects of access requests. From the broad diversity of these agencies an experienced corps of FOIA experts has emerged, consisting of attorneys and access professionals who are highly knowledgeable in the various substantive and procedural aspects of the FOIA and its proper administration. These persons are sometimes called upon to share their expertise by teaching in the various federal government training programs sponsored by the Department of Justice or the Office of Personnel Management, in Washington, D. C., and in other regions of the country.
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"Whenever new people start work in my office, I send them to the first available FOIA course," says L. Jeffrey Ross, Chief of the FOI/PA Unit of the Justice Department's Criminal Division. "In addition to on-the-job training at their own agency, it's important for new people to have formal, specialized instruction from experts who have worked with particular areas of the FOIA for a number of years."
Ross himself is a veteran FOIA instructor, having taught many "exemption" workshops in training seminars sponsored by the Justice Department, including those conducted in recent years by the Office of Information and Privacy.
"I always start off my FOIA exemption workshops by asking for a show of hands: 'How many people have used this exemption to withhold information?'" continues Ross. "People with little or no experience are my favorite students. They're generally very interested and it's their first impression of how to apply the exemptions." He takes these training responsibilities very seriously, because he knows first-hand how important FOIA training is.
"At this point," Ross says, "one of my major concerns is that people in the field offices are not getting enough FOIA training." He fears that this might be one of the effects of the budget-cutback provisions of the Gramm-Rudman legislation. "This could easily result in a disparity of treatment accorded to documents in field offices as compared to the treatment in the Washington headquarters," he warns.
Bearing in mind that training seminars can be costly to administer, Ross espouses two cost-cutting suggestions. The Justice Department could send one or two general FOIA experts to major cities to conduct seminars to an audience of employees of several different federal agencies, he suggests; or one major Department -- such as the USDA, the Department of Commerce or HUD -- could develop an agency-specific FOIA seminar and conduct the course in its regional offices, using one or two instructors from Washington in the program.
Ross is a strong proponent of regular introductory and advanced FOIA training seminars. As head of the Criminal Division's FOI/PA Unit, he supervises three attorneys, thirteen paralegals and four clerks and legal technicians.
Ross is equally enthusiastic about having his experienced attorneys and supervisory paralegals attend OIP's advanced training courses. "Many attorneys working in access law are involved in only the administrative processing of documents," he explains. "They may not always be able to keep abreast of new case law development in FOIA. The advanced courses not only provide a comprehensive overview of new cases, but the instructors also provide the students with an in-depth discussion and with the nuances of each decision."
All of these training seminars have been highly rated by members of Ross's staff. He recalls one new paralegal who attended the introductory seminar and learned quickly. "After she took the course, she would come into my office with changes I'd made in her work. She'd take a stand and argue her position. It was great! The training course not only improved her skills, it made her job more interesting and challenging."
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A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Jeff Ross earned his undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1975, he graduated from the University of Georgia Law School. In law school, Ross's major interest was international law and while there he had the opportunity of studying under former Secretary of State Dean Rusk. After his second year of law school, he attended the summer program at the Hague Academy of International Law in the Netherlands.
Although Ross came to Washington, D.C. with the intention of eventually working in the field of international law, he instead accepted an attorney position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a position he held for eight years.
"It was a terrific job," says Ross. He worked in Agriculture's Research and Operations Division. "It served as a general law office for the entire department. If you had a statute that affected all department components equally, we had responsibility for the legal effects of its administration."
Then, after several years' involvement in contracts, civil rights and personnel law, Ross came to devote half of his time to Federal Tort Claims Act actions and half to FOIA matters.
During his last three years with the Department of Agriculture, Ross served as the legal officer responsible for all FOIA appeals. He was the central point for FOIA litigation for all field offices and for USDA Headquarters. As such, he worked closely with Assistant United States Attorneys on FOIA litigation matters.
In 1983, Ross accepted his Justice Department position as Chief of the Criminal Division's FOI/PA Unit. At Justice, he has found that FOIA administrative work is equally as satisfying.
"The FOIA is there to enable people to find out how their government operates," Ross observes. "Congress also intended that the Act should benefit historians, journalists and scholars who are researching material for books and articles. During the three years of my tenure here I have been pleased that I have been able to assist researchers."
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