Government Agencies Can Come After Your Paycheck If You Don't Pay Your FOIA Fees

from the we-used-your-money-to-make-it-and-now-we're-taking-your-money-to-print-it dept

The struggle to force the government to behave in a transparent fashion often runs through the FOIA process. When the government responds, it often takes out meaningful information by abusing FOIA exemptions. When the government doesn’t respond, the “free” request becomes a rather expensive trip through the nation’s courts.

Even when the government responds, it may decide not to waive fees, leaving the requester to come up with anything from several hundred to several thousand dollars in order to see documents created with taxpayer funds by federal employees. Entities like MuckRock deal with this obstacle through crowdfunding. But not every requester has access to this sort of support. If the documents are delivered without full payment (some just require a first installment of a certain percentage), the government can come after you for the uncollected fees.

But the government’s collection efforts go beyond series of increasingly angry letters. According to information compiled by indispensable blog Unredacted, the government has the option to start docking your paycheck.

In a letter to the FOIA Advisory Committee, Michael Ravnitzky points to an article at Washington-focused blog The Hill that indicates that some government agencies are willing to use this method to collect unpaid FOIA fees. [pdf link]

I would like to bring the following issue to the Committee’s attention: application of Administrative Wage Garnishment to fees assessed for Freedom of Information Act requests.

Federal agencies have begun exploring and instituting a new weapon to use against FOIA requesters: wage garnishment. Here is a link to an article that mentions two agencies: one that is implementing wage garnishment and one that has decided not to do so after receiving some unfavorable feedback.

In this case, two agencies have already sought permission to use wage garnishment in FOIA cases for unpaid fees. A number of other agencies have established rules implementing the Administrative Wage Garnishment – AWG – provisions of the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996 – DCIA, but do not mention FOIA specifically. Other agencies are in the process of such rules, or are planning to add such rules.

As he cautions, the use of this collection method will only further encourage onerous and abusive fees.

Agencies often impose disproportionate fees that have the effect of deterring certain types of requests. For example, requesters frequently receive large fee letters without benefit of a preliminary call or note from the agency to discuss the possibility of a narrowed or more specified request, or to help clarify fee status.

Agency staff often charge review fees to noncommercial requesters, despite the fact that such fees are inapplicable. Agency staff frequently seek to charge search fees to newsmedia requesters, again despite the fact that such fees are inapplicable.

Noncommercial requesters are subject to search and review fees when responses are not provided within the statutory deadlines, even though the law precludes such fees, agencies asserting that all or nearly all the records requests they receive are subject to unusual and exceptional circumstances. Agencies even have imposed large page by page duplication fees, even when supplying electronic copies of records that already exist in electronic form.

As Ravnitzky notes, this form of collection is particularly intrusive and can have adverse effects on requesters. For the citizen on the receiving end, this can adversely affect current and future employment, as well as possibly prevent them from obtaining housing or vehicles. For those already employed, it informs employers of little more than the fact that their employee owes the government money — which implies all sorts of unseen dishonesty.

Ravnitzky calls it the “nuclear option,” one which certain agencies might deploy as further discouragement for future FOIA requests. Every government agency has many other options to resolve this issue (blocking of further requests and withholding of remaining responsive documents, to name a few) that this fee extraction method shouldn’t even be on the table.

The most disgusting aspect of this is that certain agencies (and I imagine there will be more who warm to the idea) feel entitled to take funds (well, additional funds) right out of citizens’ paychecks to pay for documents created, stored and distributed by taxpayer-funded agencies and taxpayer-funded employees. This isn’t like a federally-funded school loan where the government has spotted a member of the public the money to finish their education. This is the government extracting fees for information it won’t release until asked and charging ridiculous amounts for it. The fact that this method is available to government agencies is its own chilling effect, running directly contrary to the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act.

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Comments on “Government Agencies Can Come After Your Paycheck If You Don't Pay Your FOIA Fees”

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Most transparent administration….
The check is in the mail….
The Government is your freind….
No I won’t cum in your mouth….

At some point perhaps we should ask them to stop fucking us, or at least get some lube & provide a reach-around with all of the cash they are pulling in.

When the Government is more focused on finding a way to not provide answers than to answer to those they are supposed to serve perhaps it is time we demand better, and find the will to vote for the greater good instead of the pet hot button issue. Stop putting the petty shit ahead of demanding they stop rushing further into the Orwellian nightmare.

David says:


On the face of it I don’t see anything wrong with agencies retrieving the costs for FOIA requests from those requesting copies of records.

That being said: when we are talking about the amounts where notifying a collection agency and/or not being able to pay are even remotely topical, there is something seriously fishy going on. Either clearly and intentionally vexatious requests, or clearly and intentionally vexatious response.

I consider it unlikely that you’ll lose a lot of money when betting on the latter consistently.

Anonymous Coward says:

The “public” naively believes government is doing everything they can to operate fairly and honestly with an occasional injustice happening due to oversight or a rare bad apple. The reality is that it’s SOP is to chill, control and intimidate it’s citizens. Until WE the decide to fight back in meaningful ways that involve more than incessantly yapping about how unfair everything is, it will continue. Jimmy Hoffa had it right, sometimes you gotta get in there and mix it up. Think about it, government’s response to everything ends with a gun to your head…Oh but YOU don’t get to consider such a thing, that would be horrific right? Just sit there and take it or grovel to the compromised “representatives” that are there to help…lol.

Anonymous Coward says:

Bets on how long until a "mistake" is made with who to garnish?

Given all the other reasons, both in the articles and the comments, to believe that this is being used as a chilling effect rather than for its nominal purpose of cost recovery, any bets on how diligently the agencies will track whether they have been paid in full versus how many will put forth just enough effort that you can’t prove they were intentionally negligent in referring a paid-up requester for wage garnishment?

Anonymouse says:


In the US if you owe the government (any level of government) money, they can, like any business or individual entity, sue you to recover it. Or in this case they may have an administrative fast-track to issue a wage garnishment order themselves, though even the IRS has to get a court order for it, so i doubt that.

Yes, if you owe the government money, they can and will eventually try to collect it via any means available.

So always get a receipt.

Uriel-238 on a mobile device (profile) says:

Re: Maybe they should be made to fear.

I always thought the purpose of the second amendment was to keep our representatives nervous.

Maybe the public should adopt the policy of presuming the worst possibility (and wildly speculating about such) regarding every. last. opacity. instance.

The reason battleships, aircraft carriers and military bases have newspapers is specifically to dispel rumors. Maybe we need to develop a sustainable output of plausible worst-case rumors of what the government is doing to us and in our name.

GEMont (profile) says:

A Very Simple Solution

FOIA is a government agency.

All additional fees and costs incurred by requests of information by the public are from this point forward, to be paid for BY the government, out of collected taxes, (commonly known as the Yacht Fund.)

Since We The People already pay the government for its services, through individual wages and salaries, and produce an open-ended fund to cover additional expenses via taxation, there is absolutely no possible reason for the FOIA agency personnel to ever charge any kind of extra cost to the public, for doing the job they are already paid to do.

The simple truth of the matter, is that these additional charges are being used specifically as a means of discouraging the public from requesting information via FOIA.

It should be considered as, and treated as a criminal act, to use any ploy of any sort to defeat the stated purpose of the FOIA process, or to interfere with the public’s ability to use the agency for the purpose it was “Supposedly” created for.

In a democratic country with an honestly elected government, such actions would be illegal and punished.

Sadly, this is not the case in the United States of America.

Dan says:

Try being on the receiving end of an FOIA

As a college researcher who works on a shoestring budget, I have just been placed at the receiving end of an FOIA request.

So, I must put down my research, collate through the files, figure out what we can release and what we might need to discuss with our funding source before release. This is a process that is going to take several days. Days I don’t have, and days that I will not get paid to complete.

FOIA isn’t free: It costs people up and down the line their time. In my case, I will be giving up evenings with my family to try and catch up due to yet another bureaucratic hurdle that’s been tossed in my way. It makes it even tougher to meet deadlines.

Fees for FOIA are appropriate and necessary, and people should definitely get their wages garnished if they welch on paying their due:

FOIA causes people from government departments all the way down to the grad student to give up their time: It interrupts them from their normal business and slows down efficiency that may already be hampered with thousands of pages of contracts & grants regulation. The fees help make sure that FOIAs filed are for more than just idle curiosity.

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