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Lawsuit: Trump Admin Violating Law by Withholding Public Records on Coronavirus Testing Directives

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are “wrongfully withholding non-exempt” public records pertaining to the agencies’ coronavirus pandemic testing directives, according to a government watchdog group’s federal lawsuit.

In a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Friday, American Oversight, a non-profit organization dedicated government transparency and accountability, claimed that the federal agencies have failed to follow the law by not providing responses to its requests for public information. The group believes there is an “urgent need to inform the public about federal decision-making regarding the rollout of testing for the coronavirus.”

American Oversight filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with both agencies on March 5,  seeking “[a]ll final directives, orders, decision memoranda, or guidance regarding testing for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes COVID-19.”

The request further specified that it encompassed “any directives, orders, memoranda, or guidance regarding:  decisions regarding whether to use the World Health Organization’s test; decisions regarding whether to share data on the status and use of test kits nationwide; decisions regarding the criteria for who qualifies for testing; and decisions regarding where and when to send testing kits to healthcare providers.”

Despite both agencies granting the group’s request for expedited processing, however, neither the FDA nor HHS have provided any of the FOIA materials sought within the time period required by law, per the lawsuit:

As of the date of this Complaint, Defendants HHS and FDA have failed to (a) notify American Oversight of any determination regarding American Oversight’s FOIA request, including the full scope of any responsive records the agency intends to produce or withhold and the reasons for any withholdings; or (b) produce all of the requested records or demonstrate that the requested records are lawfully exempt from production.

The group asked a federal judge to order the agencies to immediately conduct searches for the applicable documents, to enjoin the agencies from continuing to withhold any responsive records, and to award American Oversight attorney’s fees associated with pursuing the request in court.

See below for the full complaint.

Law&Crime reported separately on a different lawsuit filed against HHS earlier this month. Last week, free speech advocacy group the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – a component of HHS – for failing to respond to its FOIA request about agency policies that restrict public health experts’ communications with reporters and the public.

American Oversight HHS Lawsuit by Law&Crime on Scribd

[image via Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.