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Federal agency hides too much


Editorial



The Oregon Farm Bureau has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Labor seeking public records concerning the department's use of "hot goods" orders.



In February the Farm Bureau filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request making 10 separate inquiries for records concerning the department's use of hot goods powers against blueberry growers last year.



The growers paid the Labor Department $240,000 to settle the charges and be allowed to ship their crops.



Four of the inquiries sought information specific to the department's investigation of two of the three farms subjected to "hot goods" treatment. The other six inquiries, it said, were about procedures, practices, and statistical information not related to any specific farm or matter before the department.



The Department of Labor summarily denied access to the records, citing an exemption in the Freedom of Information Act that allows agencies to keep secret records pertaining to active cases under investigation, in negotiation or litigation.



An appeal to the department, required procedure under the act, was also denied. That left the Farm Bureau with no other choice but to petition the courts.



Farm Bureau is hard pressed to understand how two cases that have been settled through consent decrees -- admissions of guilt on the part of growers that resulted in civil fines -- could be under investigation, in negotiation or litigation. It also doesn't understand how the department can keep secret records concerning its procedures and methods.



It's a head-scratcher that seems to defy common sense. Unfortunately, we aren't surprised the government has denied the request. With each administration the federal government is getting increasingly secretive.



Journalists know the Freedom of Information Act, and the requests made under it, simply as FOIA. More than half all FOIA requests are denied. And in cases where requests are granted, agencies often attempt to discourage petitioners by threatening to charge onerous prices for searches and copies of the documents requested.



Petitioners whose requests and departmental appeals are denied are forced to go to court, an expensive and time-consuming process. No one knows how many petitioners just give up.



It's unfortunate that so many Americans filing a FOIA for routine information will find themselves SOL.



We recognize there are things the government is obligated to keep secret. In a free society, however, these cases should be the exception, not the rule. Despots hide behind secrecy, not the elected and appointed representatives of the people living in a democratic republic.



It makes us wonder what they're hiding.



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