Judge rejects denial of FOIA request in Young case

A federal judge on Tuesday rejected the Justice Department's refusal to turn over records of its criminal investigation into Rep. Don Young's handling of a Florida highway project, including its decision not to charge the congressman.

The department had denied a government watchdog group's Freedom of Information Act request on grounds that it was protecting the veteran Alaska Republican's privacy rights. But U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled Tuesday that public interest in the case outweighs Young's privacy rights.

Congress asked the Justice Department in 2008 to investigate Young's role in securing a $10 million earmark to widen a Florida highway. The project would have benefited a developer who helped raise money for Young. The congressman was re-elected to a 20th term in 2010 after revealing that the department was not going to charge him.

"It is difficult to understand how there could not be a substantial public interest in disclosure of documents regarding the manner in which DoJ (Department of Justice) handled high-profile allegations of public corruption about an elected official," Kessler wrote. "Clearly, the American public has a right to know about the manner in which its representatives are conducting themselves and whether the government agency responsible for investigating and, if warranted, prosecuting those representatives for alleged illegal conduct is doing its job."

Young's office declined to comment on the ruling. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington submitted its FOIA request a year ago seeking all records related to the Young investigation that are not covered by grand jury secrecy, including the department's decision not to file charges.

"No government official should be above the law," CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said in a statement applauding Kessler's ruling. "Why has Rep. Young been allowed to avoid consequences for his actions? That is what CREW is trying to learn."

The department's agencies declined to search for any requested documents, and instead flatly denied the request on grounds that any release of documents would violate the Privacy Act. But Kessler said Young has "minimal" private interest considering that the investigation was not secret and that he publicly announced that the department was not going to charge him.

"The public interest in releasing this information is very strong," Kessler wrote in her 16-page opinion. "The public needs to know how DoJ carried out its statutory duties to investigate allegations of bribery and corruption of members of Congress. That is the purpose of FOIA."

She gave the Justice Department 60 days to turn over the documents related to CREW's request or specifically describe the documents it has and why each should be withheld so that she can make a final decision on what must be turned over.