FOIA 101: How to dig up information on federal political appointments

FOIA 101: How to dig up information on federal political appointments

Want to find out what qualifications are appointees bringing? The right request might lead to the release of their resume

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Edited by JPat Brown

Every four years, following the United States Presidential election, the Senate and the House of Representatives alternate publishing the so-called Plum Book, a collection of all the positions that may be filled by presidential appointment in the federal government.

These positions number in the thousands and aren’t generally subject to the competition of other federal positions. However, as discussed in a report by the Government Accountability Office released earlier this year, there isn’t a sufficient centralized location to learn about the individuals that are actually appointed.

GAO noted that an incomplete dataset is maintained by the Office of Personnel Management, typically absent data from the Executive Office of the President, which hadn’t responded at all to GAO’s own request for feedback on its ethical program. GAO recommended that multiple agencies improve their processes and that Congress pass legislation requiring “publication of political appointees serving in the executive branch.”

Despite the shortcomings of the existing ethical system, the Freedom of Information Act offers a means to learn more about these appointees at each federal agency. For example, that incomplete list of existing political appointees can be requested from OPM, as demonstrated by MuckRock user Nick Surgey.

Additionally, the resumes of political appointees should be available from individual federal agencies through a simple FOIA request.

As codified by the Code of Federal Regulations, each agency is required to appoint a Designated Agency Ethics Official, who maintains many of the responsibilities and records of the agency’s ethical guidelines and review process, meaning that that person’s office also holds additional reporting for appointees and documentation on conflicts of interest.

When requesting, keep in mind that an agency needn’t produce any records in a form that it does not actually keep in the course of its own business. That means that if you request a list of data points and the agency does not actually keep the requested data in the form of a list, it may claim that it doesn’t have any responsive records. As always, try to cite particular records and point to any statutes or internal regulations that may help an agency specifically identify and provide the materials you want.

Read OPM’s list embedded below or on the request page.

Have your own tips or tricks for learning about political appointees? Let us know, and we might feature it in an upcoming article.

Image via US Air Force