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Jett v. Federal Bureau of Investigation

United States District Court, D. Columbia

September 30, 2015

James B. Jett, Plaintiff,
v.
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Defendant

          For JAMES B. JETT, Plaintiff: Daniel J. Stotter, STOTTER & ASSOCIATES LLC, Corvallis, OR.

         For FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION, Defendant: Benton Gregory Peterson, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Civil Division, Washington, DC.

         MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         Amit P. Mehta, United States District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         In 2012, Plaintiff James B. Jett was a candidate in the race to represent the 3rd Congressional District of Florida in the United States House of Representatives. According to Jett, intermediaries of his opponent, who was a sitting Member of Congress, approached him during the campaign and offered him various benefits in exchange for dropping out of the race. Jett reported the offers to Defendant Federal Bureau of Investigation (" FBI" ), which initiated an investigation into Jett's allegations. As part of the investigation, Jett agreed to record telephone conversations with the intermediaries. Local FBI agents also instructed Jett to wear a wire into a meeting with his opponent, the intermediaries, and another, high-ranking, Member of the United States House of Representatives. But, according to Jett, officials at FBI headquarters called off the operation to protect the high-ranking Member. Soon thereafter, the FBI closed its investigation.

         Jett eventually lost the election. He then filed a Freedom of Information Act (" FOIA" ) request with the FBI seeking records related to the investigation. The FBI produced 66 pages of investigative files, many of which contained redactions. Jett now claims that the FBI (1) did not conduct an adequate search in response to his request; (2) improperly redacted records under FOIA Exemptions 6, 7(C), and 7(E); and (3) improperly withheld duplicate records.

         Before the court are the parties' respective motions for summary judgment. As explained below, both motions are granted in part and denied in part.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. The FBI's Investigation into Jett's Allegations

         In 2012, Plaintiff ran as a candidate to represent the 3rd Congressional District of Florida in the United States Congress. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. K, ECF No. 10-2, at 71. According to Jett, in February 2012, multiple intermediaries (" Intermediaries" ) of one of his opponents (" Opponent" ), an incumbent Member of Congress, approached him with offers of future employment and reimbursement of campaign expenditures if he agreed to drop out of the race. Id. at 72. Jett reported these offers to the FBI, whose field office in Jacksonville, Florida, initiated an investigation. Id. at 71.

         Much of what occurred during the short-lived investigation is revealed in the investigative files produced by the FBI to Jett. On March 1, 2012, the Jacksonville Field Office's agents asked Jett to make recorded phone calls with the Intermediaries, which Jett agreed to do. Id. at 74-91, 97. Based on those recorded calls, the Field Office agents sought approval from the Public Corruption Unit at FBI headquarters to have Jett wear a wire during a face-to-face meeting at which the Opponent, the Intermediaries, and a high-ranking Member of the House of Representatives would be present. Id. at 101. The Public Corruption Unit agents, however, rejected the request. Instead, they advised Jett that, before they would authorize him to wear a wire, he would have to record another conversation with the Intermediaries and declare " unequivocally" that he was unwilling to drop out of the race. Id. When it produced the investigative file to Jett, the FBI redacted from it text that explained why the Public Corruption Unit agents refused to allow Jett to wear a wire unless he first made another recorded telephone call. Id.

         The investigation came to a swift end, largely because of Jett's actions. Jett did not record another call, as the Public Corruption Unit agents had requested. Id. Instead, on March 2, 2012, Jett met face-to-face with the Opponent and his Intermediaries, though the high-ranking Member of the House of Representatives was not present. Id. at 92. Inexplicably, Jett told the Opponent and the Intermediaries that the FBI had approached him and had inquired whether anyone had offered him anything of value to drop out of the race. Id. He also told the Opponent that he would not accept any of the Opponent's offers and would not drop out of the race. Id. Unsurprisingly, the Opponent denied that he had authorized anyone to make any offer to Jett and even asked Jett whether he was wearing a wire. Id. The meeting then abruptly concluded. Id. Weeks later, on March 29, 2012, Jett publicly accused his Opponent of attempting to bribe him. Id. at 94.

         On June 20, 2012, the FBI formally closed its investigation, citing as its reasons Jett's disclosure of the FBI's investigation to his Opponent and his public accusations of bribery. Id. at 104.

         B. Jett's FOIA Request

         On December 26, 2012, Jett submitted a FOIA request to the FBI, seeking records pertaining to the FBI's investigation of his Opponent. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. A, at 25. In his request, Plaintiff stated:

My name is 'James B. Jett' and I am requesting 'any' information you have available on an investigation originating within the Jacksonville, Florida Field Office regarding an incident involving [the Intermediaries], [the Opponent] and [the high-ranking House of Representatives Member].

Id. at 25. Jett specified that he sought:

FBI investigative reports, copies of telephonic tape recordings made from my personal telephone at the request of the FBI, interview reports of any individuals involved, follow-up investigative reports by any FBI agents and/or written transcriptions of 'any' recorded conversations between myself and the suspects involved in this case.

Id. Jett added: " Please search the FBI's indices to the Central Records System for the information responsive to this request." Id. The FBI confirmed via email on December 26, 2012, that it had received Plaintiff's request. Def.'s Statement of Material Facts, ECF No. 10-1, ¶ 9.

         On January 14, 2013, the FBI sent two letters to Jett. Id. ¶ ¶ 10-11. The first informed him that his initial request lacked sufficient information to conduct an accurate search within the FBI's Central Records System (" CRS" ). Id. 10. The second informed him that to obtain records about third parties he needed to submit a Privacy Act waiver signed by those individuals. Id. ¶ 11. Responding by letter on January 23, 2013, Jett clarified the scope of his request and reiterated his request for the records, arguing that the third-party waivers were unnecessary because the public interest outweighed concerns about the third-parties' privacy. Id. ¶ 12; Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. E, at 43. He also renewed his request for " copies of any electronically recorded conversations between myself and the three suspects involved in this criminal case." Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. E, at 43. On February 4, 2013, the FBI informed Jett that it had received his request and had begun to search for responsive records. Id., Ex. F, at 46.

         To identify responsive material, an FBI FOIA analyst searched CRS by using a " three-way phonetic breakdown" of Jett's name. Decl. of David M. Hardy, ECF 10-2, ¶ 22 [hereinafter " Hardy Decl." ]. The analyst used no other search terms and searched no database other than CRS. The FBI's search turned up " one responsive FBI Jacksonville main file and two sub-files that were opened to investigate plaintiff's allegations." Id. Ultimately, the FBI identified 66 pages that were responsive to Jett's request. Id. ¶ ¶ 12, 25. Of those 66 pages, one page was produced in full; 59 pages were redacted in part; three pages were redacted in their entirety; and three pages were withheld on the grounds that they were duplicative. Id. ¶ 25. The FBI invoked FOIA Exemptions 6, 7(C), and 7(E) to justify its various redactions and withholdings. Id. ¶ 27.

         After exhausting his administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action on February 21, 2014. Compl., ECF No. 1.

         III. ...


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