The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has appealed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) blanket denial to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request because of the response’s inconsistency and excessive secrecy.
POGO recently requested all documents related to the NRC Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) revolving door investigation into former Commissioner Jeffrey Merrifield, including an NRC referral of the investigation to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for prosecution and the DOJ’s declination. Twelve days after Merrifield ended his term as NRC Commissioner, he took a position as Vice President of the Power Division for the Shaw Group, the “largest provider of commercial nuclear power plant maintenance and modification services in the United States.” POGO raised questions about this speedy departure and the decisions made while Merrifield was an NRC Commissioner that directly benefitted his new employer and the industry.
“The fact that Merrifield championed several major policy initiatives in 2007 that directly benefitted his future employer requires a fully transparent review,” says Peter Stockton, POGO Senior Investigator. For example, on April 17, 2007, the Commission approved a final rulemaking championed by Merrifield to ease environmental and oversight restrictions for construction activities at nuclear power plants. Few companies stood to benefit more from this “Limited Work Authorizations” rule than the Shaw Group.
The NRC OIG denied POGO’s FOIA request under Exemption 7(A) on grounds that “disclosure could reasonably be expected to interfere with an enforcement proceeding.” However, according to multiple sources within NRC’s enforcement division, nothing has been referred to enforcement and there are no pending proceedings regarding Merrifield. Furthermore, the OIG’s claim that all 4,000 pages of relevant documents were exempt does not pass the laugh test, even by Washington standards—at least one of the documents would have been POGO’s own correspondence with the NRC.
The OIG also claims that withholding the records is justified because the “disclosure is contrary to the public interest.” POGO Investigator Ingrid Drake says nothing could be further from the truth. “POGO believes the public has a strong interest in learning about how the NRC’s conflict of interest policy governing employment and post-employment activities is being enforced, as well as about any improper influence by the industry on the regulatory agency,” says Drake.
The decision to withhold all relevant documents goes against the spirit of President Barack Obama’s January 21, 2009, “Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies,” that “All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government.”