From Jake Tapper and Karen Travers:
Faced with a lawsuit from a government watchdog group, the Obama Administration tonight released a list of visits health care industry executives made to the White House since January.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-leaning good-government group, filed a lawsuit today against the Department of Homeland Security after the Secret Service turned down its request for the White House visitor records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
In a letter to CREW’s chief counsel, Anne Weismann, White House Counsel Gregory B. Craig said that “given the compelling public interest in the health care debate and the president’s goal of increasing transparency in government,” the administration went back and reviewed the visitors records related to the group’s request.
Craig wrote that Obama “has decided to exercise his discretion” and release the dates of private, unpublicized visits by 14 health care industry executives including PhRMA’s Billy Tauzin and Karen Ignagni, president and chief executive officer of America's Health Insurance Plans.
Many of the health care industry executives included in the logs were present for a publicized meeting with Obama on May 11 at the White House.
According to CREW’s lawsuit, the Obama administration originally denied the FOIA request because the logs are presidential records, not agency records, and thus are exempt from public disclosure laws. The position is similar to an argument the Bush administration used for such requests.
“We are continuing to review your specific FOIA request, as well as the White House’s general policy governing the discretionary release of visitor records,” Craig wrote in his letter.
As a candidate, Obama pledged greater transparency and openness if elected president. He publicly committed to holding open health care reform negotiations, going so far as to say he would have them “televised on C-SPAN.”
“The people can see: Who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents?” Obama said last August. “And who is– Who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies? And so that approach, I think, is what is going to allow people to stay involved in this process.”
CREW said the Obama administration’s initial refusal to release the visitor logs looked more like “backroom politicking” than transparency.
“Right now, the White House and Congress are debating colossal changes to the American health care system and taxpayers have a right to know who is sitting at the table influencing decision-makers. Unfortunately, the administration is refusing to release the names, preferring backroom politicking to transparency,” Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW, said in a statement today.
This is not the first time CREW has filed suit against the Obama administration over visitors logs.
Last month, the group sued to force the White House to provide information related to meetings it had with top coal executives.
At the time, White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said, "We are reviewing our policy on access to visitor logs and related litigation.”
-Jake Tapper and Karen Travers