When it comes to government transparency, calls for reform tend to focus on the executive and legislative branches—whether it’s to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, publicly release Office of Legal Counsel opinions, and post contract documents online, or, in the case of Congress, whether it’s to make defense authorization markups open to the public and bring Congressional fellowship programs out of the shadows.
Last week, however, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) and the Government Accountability Project (GAP) took a stand for transparency in the judicial branch. POGO and GAP filed a motion to intervene and a complaint for relief in a False Claims Act lawsuit filed by two contractor employees and one government employee who claim they were punished for raising concerns about fraud, waste, and safety violations at the Hanford Site, a plutonium production complex in Washington State in the process of being decommissioned.
The case settled last year when contractors Bechtel and AECOM agreed to pay the government $125 million to resolve claims of providing deficient materials and services at Hanford and engaging in illegal lobbying. POGO and GAP have asked the court to unseal documents and nullify gag orders preventing the plaintiffs from talking about the facts and evidence underlying the allegations in their complaint, which detail possible ongoing misconduct at Hanford.
For many years, POGO has documented the unsafe, broken, and mismanaged decommissioning process at the Hanford Site, at which millions of gallons of toxic and radioactive waste are stored. There have been numerous allegations and findings of mismanagement, fraud, unsafe practices, and whistleblower reprisals at the site. A large number of instances in our Federal Contractor Misconduct Database involve Hanford, for which contractors have paid more than $171 million in fines, penalties, and settlements. POGO and GAP are challenging the confidentiality restrictions on the basis of First Amendment speech and press rights, as well as the public’s right to know about potential environmental dangers.
“Confidentiality restrictions from protective orders, stipulated agreements, or from any other source are inimical to the public policies of Washington if they restrict speech or participation intended to promote environmental health and safety,” we argue in our motion to intervene. We also contend that “the presumption of access is based on the need for federal courts, although independent—indeed, particularly because they are independent—to have a measure of accountability and for the public to have confidence in the administration of justice.”
Transparency is essential in the judicial system. Through the litigation process, the public learns about matters that can have a direct impact on their lives, be it conditions at the country’s nuclear facilities or unsafe consumer products. We hope our arguments compel the court to lift confidentiality restrictions in this case.