Ethics Watchdog Sues Treasury to Obtain Emails with House Financial Services Committee

Financial Services Chairman Hensarling Instructed Agencies to Withhold Correspondence from FOIA Requests

Washington, DC – Non-partisan ethics watchdog group American Oversight today filed a lawsuit to force the release of emails between the Treasury Department and the House Financial Services Committee – challenging Chairman Jeb Hensarling’s assertion that the public has no right to view the documents.

“Public records belong to the public, not the government, and the law doesn’t give members of Congress the power to pick and choose what information the American people can and can’t see,” said Austin Evers, Executive Director of American Oversight. “We have a right to hold our leaders accountable no matter which party is in power, and we’re asking the court to enforce that right.”

In early April, Chairman Hensarling sent a letter to at least 12 Trump administration agencies – including Treasury – instructing them that communications between his committee and those agencies should not be released to the public when responding to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The FOIA allows the government to withhold information for a variety of reasons – such as to protect national security or personal privacy – but communications between executive branch agencies and Congress are generally not protected from release.

American Oversight submitted two FOIA requests to Treasury, on May 5 and May 11, seeking communications with Hensarling’s committee regarding financial regulation, communications about Hensarling’s directive, and any Treasury policies regarding the handling of FOIA requests. Treasury acknowledged the requests, but did not respond or provide the requested records, so American Oversight filed a complaint in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to force the department to comply with the law.

According to other documents obtained by American Oversight as well as news reports, several agencies have agreed to comply with Hensarling’s instructions. Treasury confirmed that it received Hensarling’s letter, but it has not yet publicly stated whether it will withhold emails that would otherwise be released under FOIA.

Evers continued, “There’s a process for making new laws in our country and it’s written down in the Constitution. Congress didn’t decide to shield these types of records when they updated the FOIA law last year, and there’s no basis for Chairman Hensarling to unilaterally declare that emails sent to his committee are somehow magically exempt from public scrutiny.”

American Oversight has sent a number of FOIA requests to other agencies seeking correspondence with Hensarling’s committee. One agency, the National Credit Union Administration, released a partially redacted letter and indicated that it had done so at the direction of Hensarling’s committee staff.

American Oversight’s lawsuit against the Treasury Department is below:

Complaint: American Oversight vs. Department of the Treasury (Text)