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FOIA Update: FOIA Focus: Karen B. Cameron

FOIA Update
Vol. VI, No. 4

FOIA Focus: Karen B. Cameron

All agencies of the federal government are required to maintain offices which have the responsibility of responding to FOIA and Privacy Act requests. In some of these disclosure offices, due to the relatively small volume of information requests received, there is need for only a single disclosure officer, who operates his or her own "one-person disclosure shop." Such an agency employee is responsible for organizing and maintaining an entire document-processing operation, performing all disclosure-related functions from logging the receipt of initial requests through effecting the release of requested documents in their entirety or in excised form.

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"I'm involved in a wide variety of activities," says Karen B. Cameron, Disclosure Coordinator for the Treasury Department's Office of the Inspector General. "This is truly a one-person shop. I'm responsible for each phase of the office's FOIA/PA operation."

All access requests addressed to the Department of the Treasury are funneled through its Departmental Disclosure Office, which sends initial acknowledgment letters to the requesters and then routes the requests to the appropriate disclosure offices within Treasury's many components, such as the Office of the Inspector General.

"I receive all of the requests for access to records maintained by the Office of the Inspector General," notes Cameron. "Generally, the requester is seeking information concerning an investigation or audit performed by our office." The Office of the Inspector General receives approximately forty FOIA and Privacy Act requests per year.

"Because I am a one-person shop," Cameron says, "I am responsible for all of the tasks involved in processing a request, from setting up the file and logging it onto a computerized system, to determining the scope of the request and contacting the offices that maintain the records and arranging for the documents to be photocopied. I maintain a disclosure file, which contains a copy of every document considered to be within the scope of the request, in case the initial decision is appealed.

"On voluminous requests, I telephone the requesters and tell them that this is a one-person office and that it may take a considerable amount of time to process all of the records they are seeking. I explain that if they will agree to limit the scope of their request time-wise or subject-wise, then less time will be required for processing their request. Most people are willing to be accommodating," she observes.

Once Cameron has made all of her disclosure determinations on a request, she writes the response letter to the requester and meets with legal counsel to discuss her decision. After any differences are resolved, the package is forwarded to the Inspector General for his signature.

"Often I come into the office intending to work on a particular request only to discover that I must first address a particular disclosure issue which has arisen which receives priority," Cameron says. Cameron provides advice to the Inspector General, Counsel to the IG and members of the IG staff, in addition to processing all of the FOIA and Privacy Act requests.

If a requester files an administrative appeal, it goes to Treasury's Assistant Secretary (Management) and the appeal work is done by the Office of the General Counsel. "But we're rarely overturned on appeal," Cameron notes. "I take a lot of care with each request and try to disclose as much as possible. On the other hand, I need to be very careful because of the type of investigations we do and the sensitivity involved."

Being a one-person operation has allowed Cameron the opportunity to become involved in other facets of disclosure work.

Recently, she developed an in-house training session on the Privacy Act for all of the office's investigators and has been asked to develop a similar program geared toward the auditors. She also is currently writing a section on FOIA and Privacy Act considerations for the Inspector General's manual. "Instead of giving them a synopsis of the Acts, I want to make it a working manual that addresses the issues and problems investigators and auditors encounter every day," she emphasizes.

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Cameron was born and raised in Windber, Pennsylvania, about 100 miles east of Pittsburgh. Cameron recalls that she decided that she would like to move to Washington, D.C. during a visit with her school's safety patrol when she was in the sixth grade.

After two years of college, Cameron moved to Washington, D.C. and began working for the Internal Revenue Service, which is part of the Treasury Department. She worked on a White House detail with the Presidential Clemency Board under the Ford Administration, where she had an opportunity to meet the President. On her return to the IRS, she worked as an administrative assistant in the Office of the Commissioner.

After receiving a B.S. in business management at the University of Maryland, Cameron became a disclosure specialist with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a position which she held for more than three years. In July 1984, she accepted the challenge of setting up her own operation and since then she has been able to eliminate the previously existing backlog of FOIA/PA requests filed with the IG's office.

"The thing I enjoy most about working in the disclosure area is that it is still a relatively new field," says Cameron. "Issues arise that have not yet been completely resolved by the courts. As a disclosure coordinator, I have the opportunity to become involved in a variety of access issues which are directed to me from the bureaus and offices within the Department of the Treasury. My job is never mundane."

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Updated August 13, 2014