A watchdog group is suing the federal government, claiming a top Export-Import Bank official deleted text messages that were subject to a Freedom of Information Act request.
In a lawsuit filed Wednesday with the D.C. District Court, the libertarian Cause of Action Institute alleges that Ex-Im “engaged in the unlawful destruction of federal records” when its senior vice president and chief of staff deleted text messages the group had requested through FOIA last November.
The FOIA request —submitted Nov. 14, 2014— sought text messages, Blackberry messenger chats, and SMS messages sent or received by top officials between Nov. 2 and Nov. 8, the week leading up to the 2014 midterm elections, according to a Cause of Action press release.
The request named five Ex-Im employees: Chairman Fred Hochberg, Senior Vice President and Chief of Staff Scott Schloegel, Deputy Chief of Staff Gaurab Bansal, Senior Vice President of Communications Bradley Carroll, and Senior Vice President of Congressional Affairs Erin Gulick.
Although Ex-Im received the request on Nov. 20, the group says it did not receive a response from the bank until May 12, 2015—nearly six months later.
When the response finally did arrive, Cause of Action was told that the records for Hochberg and Bansal were only “partially releasable,” and that the bank was “unable to locate or identify any responsive records” for Carroll and Gulick.
The most distressing portion of the response, however, was the disclosure that, “the records for Scott P. Schloegel were accidentally deleted on approximately January 1, 2015.”
Attached to Ex-Im’s response was a signed declaration from Schloegel attesting that, “I deleted, by mistake, the messages on my phone for the period in question.”
In its legal complaint, Cause of Action asserts that its original FOIA request was actually part of “an investigation into whether federal agencies comply with their obligation to preserve text messages for a period of time.” Not only did Ex-Im fail that test, the group claims, but to date, the bank has still not taken any action to recover the records or investigate the circumstances surrounding their deletion.
“The fact that a top official at the Export-Import Bank deleted his text messages several weeks after our organization asked to see them raises serious questions,” said Cause of Action Executive Director Dan Epstein. “Furthermore, it’s puzzling that it took the Bank another four months to let us know that this happened.”
“The public deserves to know what their government is up to,” Epstein added, vowing that, “we will work tirelessly to continue to hold these federal agencies accountable.”
The lawsuit comes at a bad time for Ex-Im, as the bank’s opponents are poised to deny congressional reauthorization of its charter, which expires on June 30. If the charter is not extended, Ex-Im will lose the ability to extend new financing for American exports, though it will continue to service its existing commitments.
Ex-Im officials had not responded to requests for comment from The Daily Caller News Foundation at press time.
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