Mark Pittman was a real patriot.
RIP Mark Pittman.
Oct. 25 (Bloomberg) -- The late Bloomberg News reporter Mark Pittman asked the U.S. Treasury in January 2009 to identify $301 billion of securities owned by Citigroup Inc. that the government had agreed to guarantee. He made the request on the grounds that taxpayers ought to know how their money was being used.
More than 20 months later, after saying at least five times that a response was imminent, Treasury officials responded with 560 pages of printed-out e-mails -- none of which Pittman requested. They were so heavily redacted that most of what’s left are everyday messages such as “Did you just try to call me?” and “Monday will be a busy day!”
None of the documents answers Pittman’s request for “records sufficient to show the names of the relevant securities” or the dates and terms of the guarantees. Even so, the U.S. government considers the collection of e-mails a partial response to an official request under the federal Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. The Justice Department in July cited an increase in such responses as evidence that “more information is being released” under the law.
President Barack Obama vowed to usher in a new era of open government. On Jan. 21, 2009, the day after his inauguration and a week before Pittman submitted his FOIA request, Obama directed agencies to “adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA.”
The saga of Pittman’s request shows that the promise of transparency has its limits when it comes to the government’s intervention in the financial industry, which at its peak reached $12.8 trillion in commitments. From the 2008 Bear Stearns Cos. rescue to the Federal Reserve’s policy of quantitative easing in 2010, the Obama administration has delayed disclosures and defended its right to secrecy in court, said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch Inc., which describes itself as a conservative foundation.
The department held back 866 more pages, saying each was exempt from disclosure on one of four grounds: trade secrets, personnel rules and practices, memos subject to attorney-client privilege and violations of personal privacy.
Treasury also cited the trade-secrets exemption in responding to a separate, similar FOIA request by Bloomberg News for details about Citigroup’s segregated bad assets. In that response, 73 of 104 pages were completely blacked out except for headings. Only six pages -- the cover, contents, a boilerplate list of legal disclosures and a paragraph titled “FOIA Request for Confidential Treatment” -- were free of redactions.
Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, sued the Fed over another Pittman FOIA request that sought the names of banks that took emergency loans from the central bank. The company has prevailed in U.S. District Court and on appeal. The Fed, which has not released the information, has until tomorrow to decide whether to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case.
Like the Treasury Department, the central bank cited the exemption for trade secrets, known as exemption 4, in withholding details about borrowers.
Pittman’s request for the Treasury Department records spent months in limbo, according to discussions with the agency’s employees. He had waited about 10 months for a response when he died on Nov. 25, 2009. Shortly afterward, Michael Galleher, an attorney working on contract for the Treasury Department, called Bloomberg News, asking where he could send the responsive documents. Attempts to return Galleher’s call failed; he couldn’t be found at the agency.