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EMERSON v. DOJ

March 12, 1985

STEVEN A. EMERSON, Plaintiff,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: GESELL

 This is a Freedom of Information Act complaint before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment *fn1" to resolve disputed exemption claims. Plaintiff, a free-lance writer, seeks documents from the Criminal Division of the United States Department of Justice and from the Federal Bureau of Investigation concerning certain individuals who have registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), 22 U.S.C. § 611 et seq. More than 900 documents have been released and some disputes resolved in prior proceedings. The remaining issues, involving primarily claims by the Criminal Division for exemption under (b)(7)(C) of FOIA, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(C), have been fully briefed and considered by the Court, aided by an in camera inspection and affidavits filed pursuant to this Court's Orders of January 31, 1985, and February 19, 1985.

 The Criminal Division has a dual role under FARA. It acts as the administrative agency to implement routine procedures under the Act and also enforces criminal sanctions and civil remedies as provided in the Act. 22 U.S.C. §§ 615, 618.

 An in camera hearing was necessary to review document Nos. 192 to 214 which the Division withheld, and to consider the Division's refusal on privacy grounds to state whether any named registrant covered by plaintiff's request had been subject to an investigation and, if so, whether responsive documents exist in the Division's files.

 The Court first considers the Division's broad claim in its Vaughn affidavit *fn2" that the fact of investigation, if one occurred as to an individual registrant, connotes wrongful or even criminal conduct so that disclosure of the mere fact of investigation would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy. *fn3"

 Exemption (b)(7)(C), like the more exacting exemption (b)(6), *fn4" is intended to apply to private information of an "intimate personal nature." Sims v. Central Intelligence Agency, 206 U.S. App. D.C. 157, 642 F.2d 562, 573-74 (D.C. Cir. 1980). Under this standard, information connected with one's business or professional relationships is not generally exempt. Id. at 574; Cohen v. Environmental Protection Agency, 575 F. Supp. 425, 429 (D.D.C. 1983). However, in recognition of the stigma potentially attached to criminal law enforcement investigations, it has been held that disclosure of the fact that an individual has been subject to such an inquiry but not charged with a crime represents a "severe intrusion" on personal privacy, even where the alleged criminal acts stem wholly from the subject's business or professional conduct. See Fund for Constitutional Government v. National Archives, 211 U.S. App. D.C. 267, 656 F.2d 856, 866 (D.C. Cir. 1981). Even then, however, there is no per se rule against disclosure. The Court is required to balance the privacy interests of the individuals in question against the public interest in disclosure. Id.; Bast v. Department of Justice, 214 U.S. App. D.C. 433, 665 F.2d 1251, 1254 (D.C. Cir. 1981). In addition, this exemption for criminal investigations has been limited to those cases where the specific information sought to be disclosed has "tend[ed] to indicate that a named individual has been investigated for suspected criminal activity." Fund for Constitutional Government, 656 F.2d at 863. It has not been held that the mere existence of criminal sanctions in an administrative regulatory scheme creates an automatic inference that an individual investigated under the regulatory scheme has been investigated for criminal wrongdoing. *fn5"

 The Act makes clear that the investigations conducted by the Division under FARA are primarily civil, not criminal, in nature. While willful violations of the Act or willfully false statements filed pursuant to the Act are punishable as crimes, 22 U.S.C. § 618(a), the Act primarily contemplates civil enforcement through government inspections and notices of deficiencies in registration statements. 22 U.S.C. §§ 615, 618(g). These informal investigations for law enforcement purposes may be prompted by a news article, a discrepancy suggested by review of a filing, a complaint, an inquiry by the registrant, or some other more or less routine development. Under the Act's record-keeping and inspection provisions, 22 U.S.C. § 615, the investigation sometimes leads to a detailed financial audit. Often copies of papers in the registrant's file are obtained for further examination. They may or may not be returned to the registrant. Some of these papers may include diary entries, entertainment guest lists, explanation of certain expenditures and other details of the registrant's activities, including activities that are not required to be reported.

 The thrust of most investigations of this type is not punitive but rather directed to assure full and complete public disclosure to the extent required by the Act. Where deficiencies are found, the registrant is required to update his public filing with an appropriate amendment which reveals the essence of any previous failure fully to report which the investigation has revealed. 22 U.S.C. § 618(g). Only the most egregious violations showing willfulness are punishable as crimes. 22 U.S.C. § 618(a). *fn6"

 Registrants appear to cooperate in such inquiries while safeguarding details of their personal and non-registrant business activities from unnecessary public disclosure. Once the investigation has been completed and any amendments found necessary have been filed, the inquiry is normally closed without resort to any further sanction. Such a pattern was disclosed by the records examined in camera by the Court in this case. No criminal sanctions are involved here. *fn7"

 It is in this context that the Court must determine whether by balancing the public and private interests the Division's file of any investigation that may have involved a named registrant must be disclosed to this FOIA requester. Exemption (b)(7)(C) will not wholly support the position taken by the Division as to such investigative materials once the balance is struck.

 The Court has concluded that the fact that a law enforcement administrative investigation by the Division occurred to assure civil compliance with FARA by any of the individuals who are the subject of plaintiff's requests does not provide automatic exemption under (b)(7)(C) of all papers generated. Although such inquiries may be viewed with alarm by the subjects involved, they are not basically criminal in nature and primarily lead to a review of information contained in records which each registrant is required to maintain by FARA regulations to determine whether or not a further or modified disclosure is required.

 Such an investigation may generate data under several categories:

 (1) Details underlying information already adequately reported.

 (2) Purely personal activities engaged in by the registrant which are wholly unrelated to any ...


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