Progress Queens files FOIA lawsuit, seeking records of Preet Bharara's speeches

By LOUIS FLORES

The publisher of Progress Queens filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on Tuesday, aiming to compel the U.S. Department of Justice to process and answer a request for records filed under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. The FOIA Request sought records about the speeches given by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, at a public speech given at New York Law School, in 2015. Source : Progress Queens/File Photograph

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, at a public speech given at New York Law School, in 2015. Source : Progress Queens/File Photograph

In unrelated litigation between the parties, the U.S. Department of Justice has admitted that it deliberately waits until the makers of FOIA Requests file lawsuits in the Courts before the Federal agency processes FOIA Requests, a sign argued by the publisher of Progress Queens of bad faith and of clear intent to violate FOIA. One count in the complaint seeks a Court order to deal with the pattern and practise of the U.S. Department of Justice to violate FOIA.

Dispute over the FOIA Request arose when the U.S. Department of Justice violated the law by not making timely determinations that it would not process the FOIA Request on an expedited basis and that it ignored making determinations in response to a FOIA Appeal filed by the publisher of Progress Queens. In the complaint, the publisher of Progress Queens alleged that, in one self-interested determination, the U.S. Department of Justice decided that the FOIA Request seeking records of the speeches made by U.S. Attorney Bharara was not filed in the public interest, despite the clear negative public interest implications of keeping secret records about speeches made by one of the Government's most influential officials. As was noted in the FOIA Request, U.S. Attorney Bharara makes speeches in private settings, many times outside of New York City, and sometimes behind the paywall of registration fees.

As was alleged in the complaint, "Defendant is in violation of 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(A)(iii), in particular, because the FOIA Request was made 'in the public interest,' as explained in the FOIA Request. Furthermore, it is in the public interest that the U.S. Attorney set a new Governmental example by complying with FOIA, so that the public can affirm its faith in the U.S. Attorney as being one of the few public officials with integrity." In the FOIA Request, it was noted that the release of the requested records would, in part, "significantly contribute to public understanding of the operations and activities of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York with regard to how it conducts it work to combat political, campaign, and business corruption."

In the past, U.S. Attorney Bharara has complained about the "substantial transparency problem throughout New York government."

Working within the framework of the highly bureaucratic and political U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney Bharara has earned praise for the anti-corruption prosecution work done by the U.S. Attorney's Office he heads. Whilst he has also earned accolades for fighting insider trading on Wall Street, he has faced criticism for refraining from prosecuting executives of financial institutions deemed "too big to jail." Important information about the decision-making made within the U.S. Department of Justice to not prosecute financial executives was learned during a 2016 speech made by U.S. Attorney Bharara, who seemed to implicate former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for decisions about who was off-limits to Federal prosecutors, according to a report of the speech filed by the journalist Will Bredderman for The New York Observer. At times, U.S. Attorney Bharara has received higher marks in job approval poll ratings than other Government officials, who must campaign for public office. U.S. Attorneys are appointed to office by U.S. Presidents and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. A 2015 Quinnipiac University poll revealed that a combined 68 per cent. of respondents said that they believed U.S. Attorney Bharara was doing enough or could do more to fight corruption, according to a report published about the poll by The New York Post. Despite having public support on his side and despite inspiring legions of followers for the global reach of the anti-corruption work done by his office, it is not known why U.S. Attorney Bharara would keep his speeches secret, if it appears his work only serve to inspire the public.

The lawsuit had to be filed in the name of the publisher of Progress Queens as Plaintiff for various reasons, including because the Clerk of the U.S. District Court does not allow corporations to file pro se complaints.

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