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After lawsuit, Obama opens a bit of info on meetings with health care executives

Image: The White House
Echoing the Bush administration, the White House argues that visitor logs are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act and might reveal presidential communications. A federal judge has rejected both arguments.Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images file
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Despite his campaign promise to "make White House communications public," the Obama administration again is blocking the public from seeing White House visitor logs, this time refusing to disclose meetings with health care executives. Tonight, less than an hour before his news conference on health care, he released some of the information only after a nonprofit group filed a federal lawsuit.

The nonprofit group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said it was filing suit Wednesday afternoon against the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Secret Service, after a request for the visitor logs was denied.

Within hours after the group announced it was filing suit, the White House relented, in part, saying it would voluntarily release the names and dates of visits. That is less information than is contained in the White House visitor logs, which would also show which White House employee requested the meeting, how long the person was at the White House, and other details. Despite the voluntary release, the Obama White House is still taking the same legal position as the Bush White House, arguing that release of the information is not required. A federal judge has twice rejected those arguments.

The nonprofit group had sought logs of visits to the White House and the vice president's residence by 18 people, including the heads of the nation's largest medical, insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

"Right now the White House and Congress are debating colossal changes to the American health care system, and taxpayers have a right to know who is sitting at the table influencing decision-makers," Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director, said in a statement. The group, widely considered to be a band of liberal activists after many battles over public records with the Bush administration, has continued to press Obama for public records.

The White House position mirrors the stand taken by the Bush administration, although twice a federal judge has ruled that White House visitor logs must be released under the Freedom of Information Act. The Obama administration says the policy is under review, but it also has continued to fight release of the records by continuing the Bush administration's efforts in a federal appellate court. The Secret Service said in its July 7 reply to CREW that the White House might make "discretionary releases," but again took the position that White House visitor logs are not covered by FOIA and also would reveal presidential communications. The Bush administration lost both arguments in federal court, and appealed.

Last month the Secret Service denied's request for logs of all White House visitors from Inauguration Day on Jan. 20. filed an administrative appeal. A narrower request by CREW, for logs of visits by coal industry executives, also was rejected, and CREW sued on June 16.

A campaign promise
During the presidential campaign, Obama promised several times to open up records of lobbying, including a promise to "Make White House Communications Public: Obama will amend executive orders to ensure that communications about regulatory policymaking between persons outside the government and all White House staff are disclosed to the public."

White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said Wednesday that the policy on visitor logs remains under review.

Anticipating the limited release of records Wednesday evening, CREW attorney Anne L. Weismann said, "It's our view this is merely spin and not a real effort at transparency."

An hour before the president's news conference on health care, the White House sent CREW the following list of visits by health care executives:

  • Bill Tauzin visited the White House on March 5, May 19, June 2, and June 24. He is president and CEO, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
  • Karen Ignagni visited the White House on March 5, 6, and 11 and June 30. She is president and CEO, America's Health Insurance Plans.
  • Richard Umbdenstock visited the White House on February 4, February 23; March 5, March 25, March 30; April 6, and May 22. He is president and CEO, American Hospital Association.
  • J. James Rohack visited the White House on March 25, June 22, and June 24. The cardiologist from Texas is president of the American Medical Association.
  • William C. Weldon visited the White House on May 12. He is chairman and CEO, Johnson & Johnson.
  • Jeffrey B. Kindler visited the White House on March 5, May 6, and June 2. He is chairman and CEO, Pfizer.
  • Stephen J. Hemsley visited the White House on May 15 and 22. He is president and CEO, UnitedHealth Group.
  • Angela F. Braly visited the White House on February 13. She is president and CEO, WellPoint.
  • George Halvorson visited the White House on March 27 and June 5. He is president and CEO, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan.
  • Jay Gellert visited the White House on February 10, March 11, and March 20. He is president and CEO, Health Net.
  • Thomas Priselac visited the White House on April 3. He is president and CEO, Cedars-Sinai Health System.
  • Richard Clark visited the White House on March 24. He is chairman, president and CEO, Merck.
  • Wayne T. Smith visited the White House on June 4. He is chairman, president and CEO, Community Health Systems.
  • Rick Smith visited the White House on May 19 and June 2. He is senior vice president, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
  • "In addition to the above information, the White House visitor records reflect that Mr. Tauzin, Ms. Ignagni, Mr. Umbdenstock, Mr. Rohack, Mr. Kindler, Mr. Halvorson, Mr. Gellert, Mr. Priselac, David Nexon, and Rick Smith were scheduled to attend a May 11 meeting at the White House.  We understand that all the individuals attended the meeting except Mr. Kindler, and that Mr. Clark attended as well."

'Transparency is not situational'
CREW responded in a statement:

"While Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is pleased the White House has taken a step towards delivering the transparency promised in the first days of the administration, the letter sent by White House Counsel Greg Craig in no way satisfies CREW’s June 22nd Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the Secret Service visitor records of 18 health care executives.  First, the FOIA requires the administration to release the records themselves, not merely a summary of some information included in the records.  The actual visitor records likely would indicate with whom each official met, the administration official who requested clearance for the visitor, the time of the meeting, the duration of the meeting and, in some cases, the purpose of the meeting.  In addition, no information was provided regarding any visits to the vice president’s residence.  Mr. Craig’s summary is not an adequate substitution for the records themselves.

"Second, this letter states the President has used his discretionary authority to release information regarding the visits.  There is no indication, however, that this information is complete; there may well be records of other visits not included in this discretionary release.  Further, as required by the FOIA, no information was provided to demonstrate the adequacy of the search.

"Finally, transparency is not situational.  It is not sufficient for the White House to release certain visitor records shortly before a press conference to avoid distraction.  In a separate case, CREW recently sued the administration for failing to provide records related to White House visits by coal company executives.  In addition, CREW has two other cases for visitor records outstanding: one for visits by Christian conservative leaders to the Bush White House, and another for records related to visits to the Bush White House by lobbyist Stephen Payne.  These cases are now before the Court of Appeals, but so far, the Obama administration has echoed the Bush administration’s position that these records are presidential, not federal, despite district court rulings clearly rejecting that legal analysis.

"Releasing some records because it is politically expedient to do so is not transparency."

Several hours before the news conference, the White House press office started telling Washington reporters that it would release the list of names and dates — without letting reporters know that it was not actually releasing the records requested by CREW. This was an apparent attempt to discourage interest in the story about CREW's lawsuit.

'I don't think there are a lot of secrets'
Nevertheless, in his news conference, the president was asked by a Chicago Tribune reporter about the blocking of visitor logs. Obama didn't answer directly about visitor logs, but pointed out that the list had been released. And he said, "On the list of health care executives who visited us, most of the time you guys have been in there taking pictures, so it hasn't been a secret."

"With respect to most of the negotiations not being on C-SPAN," the president said, "you'll recall that our kickoff event was here on C-SPAN." He said many other meetings have been with Congress, which controls its own publicity. "I don't think there are a lot of secrets going on in there."

Stepping up the pressure with this request, CREW has asked a federal court for emergency relief in the form of a preliminary injunction compelling the Secret Service to hand over its agency records.

Wednesday's lawsuit by CREW was first reported by The Los Angeles Times. "As a candidate, President Obama vowed that in devising a healthcare bill he would invite in TV cameras — specifically C-SPAN — so that Americans could have a window into negotiations that normally play out behind closed doors," the newspaper reported.

More background on the White House visitor logs, and efforts by the Bush and Obama administrations to keep them secret, is detailed in our previous story, "Obama blocks access to White House visitor logs."