News Story

'Secretive Obama Administration' Official to Kick Off Event on Transparency

Legal scholar says Attorney General Holder's participation in Wayne State event is 'the height of hypocrisy'

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder

When Wayne State Law School holds its "Building an Honest & Open Government in Detroit: Why Public Integrity Matters," event Monday, an interesting choice of speakers will open the day's activities with a video conference: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Attorney General Holder has had his own bouts with openness in government and has been highly criticized by Republicans and open government advocates from both sides of the aisle.

The GOP-controlled U.S. House of Representatives found Holder in contempt for not turning over 1,500 pages of material dealing with a scandal over gun-tracking case known as "Fast and Furious." President Obama asserted executive privilege over the release of the documents.

And a report released last week by a journalists' group claims that the Obama administration is trying to prevent the flow of information to reporters, saying it is the most secretive since the Nixon administration. Freedom of Information laws were amended significantly after the Watergate scandal.

Other groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, some unions, and the Society of Professional Journalists, among others, sent a joint letter in May to Attorney General Holder demanding "a full, transparent account" of the Justice Department's role in the targeting of whistleblowers and journalists.

John Wonderlich, policy director for the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, said partisan politics can complicate the discussion on the transparency of a presidential administration. He said the Bush administration was not very transparent.

"The Obama administration has done a lot of good things in terms of transparency, but some of the worst have been out of the Department of Justice, unfortunately," Wonderlich said. "Obama's DOJ has often been a bigger barrier to transparency than enabling it. Obama's DOJ has often become synonymous with secrecy in government."

Heritage Foundation Senior Legal Fellow Hans von Spakovsky said the comparison of the Obama administration's secrecy to Nixon's was, "extremely apt."

When a district judge rejected the Department of Justice's request to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the House of Representatives over release of the "Fast and Furious" documents, von Spakovsky wrote a piece about how the argument used in court by the DOJ was the same Nixon had used decades earlier.

"In its motion to dismiss, the DOJ made the startling argument that the courts have no role in resolving a dispute between Congress and the President over the legitimacy of his invocation of executive privilege. This would permit the President to stonewall any congressional inquiry — as Richard Nixon tried to do by ignoring subpoenas — or invoke executive privilege in an improper fashion to prevent the disclosure of embarrassing information or criminal conduct," von Spakovsky wrote. 

Von Spakovsky questioned why the first Attorney General ever held in contempt by the House of Representatives for refusing to release subpoenaed documents would be asked to speak at an event about transparency.

"I think it is the height of hypocrisy for him to be doing this," von Spakovsky said.

Jocelyn Benson, interim dean of the Wayne State University Law School, and Wayne State University Spokesman Michael Wright didn't return requests for comment.

(Editor's note: Additional quotes have been added to this story since its original posting.)