Published — December 9, 2019

From Ukraine to the U.S. government, Public Integrity journalists fight for open records

The opening page of a ruling signed Nov. 25, 2019, by federal district Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly in response to a Center for Public Integrity lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense.

New court ruling underscores years of Freedom of Information Act victories


The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates betrayals of public trust. Sign up to receive our stories.

On Thursday, the Center for Public Integrity expects to win release of at least 106 Department of Defense and White House Office of Management and Budget documents that relate to President Donald Trump’s decision to withhold military aid and security assistance to Ukraine. Additional documents are expected on Dec. 20.

Trump’s decision is a central issue in the U.S. House of Representatives’ ongoing impeachment proceedings against the president. 

Public Integrity national security editor Jeff Smith requested these documents under the Freedom of Information Act, then sued in federal court earlier this year when government officials refused to release them. On Nov. 25, federal district Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ordered the Defense Department to release the documents to Public Integrity — and quickly.

Public Integrity’s aggressive approach to obtaining documents and data the government doesn’t want you to see — spearheaded by attorney and research editor Peter Newbatt Smith — is a cornerstone of our investigative journalism.

Consider that when it comes to filing FOIA lawsuits, Public Integrity ranks near the top of all U.S. news organizations, including those exponentially larger than our nonprofit newsroom of 27 journalists. (Only the New York Times and journalist Jason Leopold, now of BuzzFeed News, have filed more since 2001, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.)

Here are 10 other times Public Integrity scored FOIA victories that helped us advance our journalistic mission: “To protect democracy and inspire change using investigative reporting that exposes betrayals of the public trust by powerful interests.” 

  1. Deputy editor Patrick Malone obtained emails through a FOIA request and subsequent lawsuit that showed how now-former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson helped defense contractor Lockheed Martin lobby for federal funds. Malone’s February 2017 article revealed that Lockheed “capitalized on Wilson’s extraordinary familiarity with Washington to craft a lobbying strategy meant to avoid having to compete for the renewal of a government contract that brought in huge profits.” The U.S. Department of Energy later agreed to pay Public Integrity $5,000 as part of a FOIA lawsuit settlement.

  2. A FOIA lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Commerce prompted the release of documents central to the publication of the July 2018 investigation entitled “Wilbur Ross stock holdings rose in value during improper divestment delay,” written by senior reporter Carrie Levine.

  3. The U.S. Department of State in October agreed to settle a federal lawsuit and pay Public Integrity $7,000 stemming from failures to properly respond to five FOIA requests made by Levine. This money will be used to offset legal costs incurred by Public Integrity as part of its open-records legal work. Documents obtained as part of this lawsuit revealed how sanctioned Russian bank VTB attempted to woo U.S. government officials before and after the 2016 election.

  4. Public Integrity environment and energy reporters successfully sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after it failed to respond in a timely fashion to 25 FOIA requests made during 2017 and 2018. The numerous documents Public Integrity obtained because of the lawsuit helped illuminate the activities of former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who resigned in July 2018 amid an ethics scandal.

  5. A FOIA lawsuit victory against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was central to the reporting of “Cracking the Codes,” a 2012 investigation that, for the first time, documented how some medical professionals had billed Medicare at sharply higher rates than their peers and collected billions of dollars of questionable fees as a result.

  6. FOIA wins were key to the reporting of Public Integrity’s landmark “Sexual Assault on Campus” series, which reporter Kristen Lombardi began in 2009.

  7. Records obtained via FOIA victories proved foundational to the third iteration of Public Integrity’s “Windfalls of War” series in 2011, which illustrated how taxpayers lost big when the U.S. government spent billions of dollars on military contracts that are not competitively bid.

  8. A 2015 FOIA lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission resulted in the release of hundreds of documents that detailed the schedules and travels of the bedraggled election agency’s commissioners. Separately, a 2017 lawsuit against the FEC resulted in the release of documents between the agency at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

  9. A FOIA lawsuit resulted in Public Integrity news developer Pratheek Rebala obtaining documents that showed how the State Department gave a $500,000 no-bid contract to the parent company of data firm Cambridge Analytica, which shut down in 2018 amid a scandal over how it obtained the personal data of millions of Americans. 

  10. A FOIA lawsuit against the U.S. General Services Administration provided key information that helped shed light on whether Trump was personally profiting from his own presidential transition during late 2016 and early 2017.

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