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BLAKEY v. DOJ

October 18, 1982

G. Robert BLAKEY, Plaintiff,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, et al., Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: JACKSON

 JACKSON, District Judge.

 This case, which commenced as an FOIA action to obtain vast quantities of FBI documents related to the assassination of President Kennedy and has provoked considerable acrimony during its course to date, had been distilled prior to hearing into a dispute over a single issue, viz., plaintiff's right to a waiver of defendant's customary charges for copying the remaining materials to which all agree he is entitled. At oral argument, however, controversy revived over two additional issues: the FBI's invocation of Exemption 7(C) to refuse to confirm or deny the existence of additional records concerning one Rogelio Cisneros, and the adequacy of its search for records relating to acoustical analyses conducted in the assassination investigation. These three issues are now before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment supported by appropriate affidavits on both sides.

 I. Fee Waiver

 Plaintiff Blakey is currently a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School, and a former Chief Counsel and Staff Director of the House Select Committee on Assassinations which investigated, inter alia, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In June of 1979 Blakey made a formal FOIA request of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for records relating to Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, some 50,000 pages of documents in all, and asked for a waiver of all fees imposed for copying them which would otherwise total $5,196.70. *fn1" The FBI denied Blakey's fee waiver request initially in September, 1979, and the decision was ultimately affirmed by the Office of Privacy and Information Appeals in October, 1981, on Blakey's appeal.

 The applicable provision of FOIA, 5 U.S.C., § 552(a)(4)(A), authorizes agencies to impose reasonable and uniform standard charges for document search and duplication, fixed to recover only the direct costs thereof, and continues to state:

 
Documents shall be furnished without charge or at a reduced charge where the agency determines that waiver or reduction of the fee is in the public interest because furnishing the information can be considered as primarily benefiting the general public.

 The implementing Department of Justice regulation, 20 C.F.R., § 16.9(a) (1981), provides that a determination that a fee waiver is in the public interest "shall ordinarily not be made unless the service to be performed will be of benefit primarily to the public as opposed to the requester, or unless the requester is an indigent individual." Blakey disclaims indigency.

 In its original denial of Blakey's fee waiver request, the FBI determined that "interests of the general public appear more likely to be served by the preservation of public funds." The Office of Privacy and Information Appeals reached the same conclusion, observing that the Kennedy assassination file had been made available to the public in the FBI reading room in Washington. (Although Blakey travels to Washington frequently, he resides in Indiana). Copies of the file have been requested and paid for in full by four news organizations, one university, and a microfilming firm (which Blakey says he cannot locate). The Department of Justice has consistently denied fee waivers for the Kennedy materials since the records were initially processed for release under FOIA, and they have been furnished without charge on only one occasion and that pursuant to court order.

 Plaintiff contends he is uniquely situated to benefit the public in the uses he intends to make of these documents. He states that he expects to make recommendations to the FBI and Department of Justice for further investigation of Kennedy's death, to teach a course at his law school on the subject, and to write "one or more publications." When his review is complete he anticipates donating the materials to Notre Dame's library.

 As a general rule an agency has broad discretion concerning fee waivers, and its decision should not be overturned unless it is arbitrary, capricious or not otherwise in accordance with law. Eudey v. CIA, 478 F. Supp. 1175 (D.D.C.1979); Lybarger v. Cardwell, 577 F.2d 764, 766 (1st Cir. 1978); Burke v. U.S. Department of Justice, 559 F.2d 1182 (10th Cir. 1977). Relying on Fitzgibbon v. CIA, No. 76-700 (D.D.C. January 10, 1977), however, plaintiff contends that the FBI must ignore the substantial cost incurred in providing him with a copy of the Kennedy materials in light of the public's inordinate and continuing interest in the assassination. But Fitzgibbon involved a request for a waiver of search fees in advance, and in a relatively modest amount, for information not yet in the public domain, not the considerably greater reproduction cost for the single copy of documents already located, assembled, and published which is involved here. *fn2"

 II. Cisneros Records

 In April, 1980, plaintiff requested all agency records concerning one Rogelio Cisneros. *fn3" The FBI initially spurned the request altogether because plaintiff had not obtained Cisneros' written authorization, but several months later the request was processed and Blakey ultimately received all documents concerning Cisneros contained in files having to do with the Kennedy assassination. The FBI refuses to confirm or deny its possession of any other records relating to Cisneros which might be found elsewhere, i.e., indexed under topics other than the Kennedy assassination, claiming it has balanced the public's right to know against Cisneros' right to privacy and has determined the documents, if they exist, are exempt under 5 U.S.C., § 552(b)(7)(C), which permits the withholding of "investigatory records ...


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