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Judicial Watch, Inc. v. U.S. Department of Justice

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 20, 2017

JUDICIAL WATCH, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ROSEMARY M. COLLYER United States District Judge.

         Judicial Watch, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records from the Federal Bureau of Investigation regarding any interviews of high-level Obama administration officials concerning Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois.

         Unhappy with FBI's decision to withhold certain records, Judicial Watch has sued. The government now moves for summary judgment in its favor, arguing that it has met its FOIA obligations. Judicial Watch has also made a cross-motion for summary judgment in its favor. Upon review of the entire record, the Court agrees with the government; the Court will grant its motion and deny Judicial Watch's cross-motion.

         I. BACKGROUND FACTS

         A. Judicial Watch's FOIA Request

         On May 9, 2012, Judicial Watch submitted a FOIA request via certified mail and fax to FBI's Record/Information Dissemination Section (RIDS).[1] See Decl. of David M. Hardy (Hardy Decl.) Ex. A, Judicial Watch Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA Request) [Dkt. 13-2] at 1. This request sought records related to any and all FBI interviews with Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, and Valerie Jarrett that concerned Rod Blagojevich. Id.

         Rod Blagojevich was criminally charged with multiple corruption-related crimes in 2008 after a federal investigation into his activities. Decl. of Debra Riggs Bonamici (Bonamici Decl.) [Dkt. 13-3] ¶¶ 5-6. After two trials, Mr. Blagojevich was convicted and appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. The Seventh Circuit ultimately affirmed his conviction, see United States v. Blagojevich, 854 F.3d 918 (7th Cir. 2017), and denied rehearing en banc, see Order, Blagojevich, No. 16-3254, ECF No. 53 (7th Cir. June 5, 2017). The parties briefed the instant motions while Mr. Blagojevich was continuing his appeal; the public record indicates that, at the time of this Memorandum Opinion's writing, the Supreme Court had most recently granted Mr. Blagojevich an extension of time to file a writ of certiorari to November 11, 2017. See Notice, Blagojevich, No. 16-3254, ECF No. 56 (7th Cir. August 4, 2017).

         The FBI, a constituent entity of the Department of Justice, acknowledged receipt of the FOIA Request on May 23, 2012, and began searching for responsive records. Hardy Decl. ¶ 6. FBI RIDS employees searched FBI's Central Records System (CRS), a centralized records system encompassing the entire FBI organization, using the system's Automated Case Support (ACS), an electronic case management system. Id. ¶¶ 16-18; 22. RIDS searched ACS using a phonetic breakdown of the name “Rod Blagojevich” and then used further keyword searches within those records using the names of the individuals named in the FOIA request.

         This search identified only three FD-302 forms, which are forms used to summarize “important facts and statements made by a potential witness in the course of an interview conducted by FBI Special Agents, sometimes in conjunction with federal prosecutors.” Bonamici Decl. ¶ 7. After concluding this search, FBI determined that all three FD-302s were exempt from disclosure because they were contained in a pending law enforcement investigative file, and informed Judicial Watch of this fact. Hardy Decl. ¶ 23. The FBI also performed a review of the responsive material after Judicial Watch filed this lawsuit, which yielded no additional records. Id. Thus all records responsive to Judicial Watch's request were withheld as exempt.

         B. Procedural History

         After filing a series of administrative appeals with DOJ, Judicial Watch filed this lawsuit on September 21, 2016.[2] On April 13, 2017, DOJ filed its Motion for Summary Judgment, see Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. (DOJ MSJ) [Dkt. 13]. Judicial Watch filed its Opposition, see Pl.'s Opp'n [Dkt. 15] and simultaneously filed a Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment, see Pl.'s Cross-Mot. Summ. J. (Judicial Watch MSJ) [Dkt. 16]. DOJ responded, see Def.'s Opp'n [Dkt. 17] and Def.'s Reply [Dkt. 18], and Judicial Watch submitted a final reply, see Pl.'s Reply [Dkt. 21]. The matter is now ripe for the Court's review.

         II. VENUE AND JURISDICTION

         Section 552(a)(4)(B) of the U.S. Code grants subject matter jurisdiction over all actions brought under FOIA, and makes this an appropriate forum for venue purposes. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B) (2012) (“On complaint, the district court of the United States in the district in which the complainant resides, or has his principal place of business, or in which the agency records are situated, or in the District of Columbia, has jurisdiction to enjoin the agency from withholding agency records and to order the production of any agency records improperly withheld from the complainant.”); see Jones v. Nuclear Regulatory Comm'n, 654 F.Supp. 130, 131 (D.D.C. 1987).

         The Court's jurisdiction under FOIA extends only to claims arising from the improper withholding of agency records. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B); see also Lazaridis v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 713 F.Supp.2d 64, 66 ...


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