Senior DHS FOIA Official Named as US Ombudsman

22 July 2015

James Holzer, Senior Director of FOIA Operations at the Department of Homeland Security, has been selected to be the next US FOIA ombudsman.

The five-year veteran of the DHS FOIA office will be director of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) beginning in August, filing a position vacant for eight months. He has been at DHS since January 2009. His appointment was been informally revealed, including at a July 21 meeting of the FOIA Federal Advisory Council, and announced July 23 by the National Archives and Records Administration, where OGIS resides.

Holzer has direct experience with the office he has been tasked to direct, representing DHS’s views in several matters under review by the ombudsman’s office.

Several recent Holzer memorandums indicate his involvement in managing disparate FOIA operational systems, a topic of continuing activity government-wide. The Justice Department recently announced an effort to study a “release to one, release to all” policy. Some DHS sections are participating in the study. (See FreedomInfo.org report.)

DHS earlier in July became the first federal agency to release a FOIA mobile application, described in a post on DHS’s blog and roundly criticized by journalist Alexander Howard in an Huffington Post article. Howard said the app “actually made the experience of submitting one worse.”

Interactions With OGIS

Holzer was involved in two of the 11 DHS-related matters handled by OGIS in fiscal year 2015 (out of 54 total matters), according to the OGIS website.

OGIS looked into DHS’s handling of requests from MuckRock, a public interest site that facilitates FOIA requests, Holzer issued an internal memo in September 2013 finding that MuckRock “is not a member of the news media.” He wrote further: “Certainly, certain requesters using MuckRock’s services may qualify for such status. Yet, even MuckRock describes itself as a “request proxy” that mails the request on behalf of their paying customer; an organization that simply collects and distributes information. Based on this information, it is my recommendation that on a case-by-case review, MuckRock be placed in the commercial category and charged accordingly.”

The Feb. 27, 2015, OGIS letter on its review of the matter, at MuckRock’s request, summarized: “Mr. Holzer explained that DHS FOIA staff makes fee determinations based on the guidance found in DHS’s FOIA regulations. He shared with OGIS his observation that

the requests submitted through MuckRock tend to provide too little information to enable DHS FOIA staff to make a fee category determination; absent this information, DHS FOIA must evaluate and consider the scope and purpose of the MuckRock website to determine the proper fee category.”

Reflecting on a position that Holzer will soon be in, the OGIS letter notes, as their letters routinely do: “In cases such as this where an agency is firm in its position, there is little for OGIS to do beyond providing more information about the agency’s actions.”

The OGIS letter provides additional analysis on fees and suggests:

Considering DHS’s position on this matter and the analysis that DHS performs on incoming requests, MuckRock may find it useful to explain the difference between fee waivers and fee categories to its users, and to provide requesters with a tool to review the requirements for requesting a specific fee category outlined in agency FOIA regulations. OGIS encourages all requesters to direct agencies to place them in a specific fee category (and to provide information to illustrate that assertion) as part of their initial FOIA requests.

MuckRock has written about the issue here in 2014 and here in 2015.

In another 2015 matter, OGIS heard from a requester in a dispute with DHS over the timing of an appeal. OGIS said in its summary letter: 

In response to your submission, we contacted James Holzer, Senior Director of DHS’s FOIA Operations. Mr. Holzer informed OGI that the agency is firm in its position on your request. OGIS further inquired whether another request for the same records could be appealed, and Mr. Holzer shared that a request seeking exactly the same information would be closed as a duplicate and appeal rights would not be granted.

Back in 2012, the Electronic Privacy Information Center EPIC asked OGIS to look into how DHS was handling fees and fee waivers. The matter is summarized in an Oct. 19, 2012, letter from Holzer’s predecessor, the first ombudsman, Miriam Nisbet. She noting holding conversations with Holzer and reported that DHS “is changing its polices with regard to all three practices.”

DHS Policy Involvement

On the broader policy front, Holzer in a March 2015 memo, responded for DHS to a 2014 report by the Government Accountability Office entitled, “Freedom of InformationAct; DHS Should Take Steps to Improve Cost Reporting and Eliminate Duplicate.”

Holzer noted that some DHS divisions had used use “alternate technical solutions for FOIA processing” and that they had been asked to identify which GAO recommendations were not being met, “and undergo any necessary development efforts to satisfy outstanding unmet requirements.”

Another March 2015 memo from Holzer concerned a 2012 GAO report, “Freedom of Information Act; Additional Actions Can Strengthen Agency Efforts to Improve Management.” He wrote that “DHS has significantly improved its FOIA Libraries making them easier to navigate, posting vast amounts of information, and making them more citizen-centered.”

Identifying the “updating” of the FOIA libraries as a continuing issue, Holzer said DHS “components must conduct an internal review of their agency’s FOIA Libraries, address any deficiencies identified, and notify the Privacy Office which requirements are not being met, and what actions will be taken to satisfy compliance with the legal requirements for FOIA Reading Rooms.”

He also has been involved in DHS FOIA decisions and litigation.

Broad DHS Duties

His LinkedIn page summary says:

Over 18 years of progressive program management experience with federal programs and the military. Exceptionally skilled in providing strategic and project management leadership. Proven driver of organizational change who inspires continual process improvement while achieving clear, measurable results. A strong negotiator capable of building consensus and rallying support in organizations. Specialized expertise managing organizations facing rapid change, turbulence and uncertainty while keeping employees focused, engaged, productive, motivated, and energized amid chaos. Expert knowledge in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)/Privacy Act (PA) administration.

Concerning his current job, the entry says:

Serves as a key adviser to the Chief Privacy Officer/Chief FOIA Officer, Deputy Chief FOIA Officer and other senior Executive level DHS leaders on department-wide policies and program objectives on matters that pertain to DHS record disclosure. Works closely with senior leadership throughout the Department and functions as an authority on information disclosure matters under the FOIA/PA. Serves as a principal DHS point of contact with other Federal, State and local agencies and private organizations.

Represents the Chief Privacy Officer/Chief/FOIA Officer, Deputy Chief FOIA Officer and the Department at interagency meetings, public conferences, and serves as the liaison for the Privacy Office with counterparts at other Federal, State and local agencies. Represents DHS when contacting requesters which include officials and representatives from contractors, other government agencies including state, local, and foreign governments, the White House, Congress, private immigration firms, news media, etc., on FOIA/PA matters that are highly visible and subject to congressional and media scrutiny or public controversy.

Chairs the Department’s Chief FOIA Officer Meetings comprised of all 19 component FOIA Officers. Works with component FOIA Officers and staff to establish mechanisms to fully integrate components and headquarters into “One DHS.” Advises and assists DHS components regarding complex, high-visibility requests including recommending overall approach, search strategies, identifying necessary consultations and coordination. Supports the DHS General Counsel and the Department of Justice in litigation filed pursuant to FOIA, often involving national security interests. Coordinates with a variety of entities, including Federal agencies, Federal courts, Congress, and the private sector to advance DHS’ position.

Before joining DHS, from March 1996 to March 2009, LinkedIn says he: “Led Information Management support for Air Force Material Command’s largest Test Wing comprised of more than 3,600 personnel in seven groups and 16 geographically separated units. Formulated and executed Information Management policies, personnel assignments, and day-to-day activities of the Executive Services and Client Support Administration staff supporting the Wing Commander, Vice-Commander, Wing Technical Director, and Wing Command Chief.”

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