Late last month, PJM reported that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) — ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform — had begun an investigation into allegations the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) gave preferential treatment to banks with political connections.
Allegations which, at the time, FDIC flatly denied.
That request asked for:
[Documents] pertaining to all internal reports, memos, listings and communications concerning the identification of banks that might cause press or public relations problems.
This includes all documents in which FDIC personnel identified conflicts of interests between elected or appointed federal officials with bank ownership or management.
FDIC has since replied to PJM in record time.
In the two-page response, the FDIC does not claim they do not maintain such a list or engage in the practice of flagging banks which have important contacts. Instead, they essentially say they do not have to provide such information to PJM because the request was simply too broad:
The FOIA requires that each request reasonably describe the information sought and that it comply with an agency’s published rules, including those pertaining to fees. … A request for identifiable records shall reasonably describe the records in a way that enables the FDIC’s staff to identify and produce the records with reasonable effort without unduly burdening or significantly interfering with any of the FDIC’s operations.
In other words: “If we can find a legitimate excuse to say this would ‘unduly burden’ employees or ‘interfere with operations,’ we can tell you no.”
FDIC also says our request didn’t properly explain what documents we were looking for:
A request for a “documents pertaining to all internal reports, memos, listings and communications concerning the identification of banks that might cause press or public relations problems … [including] all documents or electronic communication in which FDIC personnel identified conflicts of interests between elected or appointed federal officials with bank ownership or management[,]” does not reasonably describe the information requested, and is not in compliance with the FOIA and the FDIC’s FOIA regulations.
They also claimed we did not give them a proper time frame for the search, but rather were asking for information going all the way back to 1933, when the FDIC was created:
Your request is not limited to records created or obtained by the FDIC during any recent or otherwise reasonable period of time, but instead seeks all otherwise responsive records without regard to when created or obtained by the FDIC. The FDIC was created in 1933. The potential scope of your request is enormous, and covers records created during a period of more than seventy-five years. Given its potential scope, we would need to perform searches of all active and retired files that reasonably might be expected to possess whatever information you wish to obtain, and perform records searches of each and every desktop computer, laptop computer, PDA, and other storage device, whether in paper, electronic or other format, and whether located at the FDIC’s headquarters or at any FDIC regional or field office, on or off-site. A records search of this magnitude would impose an unreasonable administrative burden on the FDIC. The FOIA does not provide for an agency to assume that burden.
This is, I suppose, true enough. We did not specify the last four years, for instance. However, any reasonable person, understanding what the story was about and who was involved would be quite aware we were not asking for records from the last 75 years, but about the last four. This is, again, simply a way to avoid answering the core questions: Did or does the FDIC maintain a list of banks with prominent contacts whose failures might cause press and/or congressional problems for the FDIC? Moreover, does the FDIC provide special treatment to such banks?
In the case of OneUnited, Maxine Waters and the ubiquitous Mr. Barney Frank, who adjusted the law so OneUnited could get a bailout they would not otherwise have, the answer appears to be yes.
If this is an isolated case, then FDIC has a problem. If this is not just an isolated case, and this was a policy decision, then the country has a problem, and a thorough house cleaning needs to occur at one of the most powerful agencies in the nation.