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FOIA Lawsuits Seek Records of Trump Hotel Deal — Including Closing Parts of “America’s Main Street”

dcogcadmin | August 13, 2016

FURTHER UPDATE 4-27-17: Superior Court hearings have been repeatedly canceled. The next is set for June 9, 2017, at 9:30 in Courtroom 212 before Judge Todd Edelman. The parties’ reported to the federal court in March that the Department of Interior had completed its search and plaintiffs were reviewing the records, and that after initial results an expanded search was under way at the General Services Admknistration. The next report is due from the parties on April 28.

UPDATE 1-26-17: The District of Columbia answered the lawsuit in October but any release of documents or other progress since then is behind the scenes and not reflected in the court record. The parties’ jointly reported to trhe court December 21  that the police department will “reevaluate certain concerns raised” by the plaintiffs and the sides had “plans for further discussion after the New Year” with a view towards “resolving the matter without need of further intervention by the court.” More details may come out when the court holds a conference on the status of the case February 10 at 9:30. The lawsuit seeking records withheld by the federal General Services Administration and the Departmennt of trhe Interior continues in U.S. District Court, with the court requiring monthly progress reports. The January report suggested small proigress, though the federal agencies have released some records. A schedule for further briefing of whatever is in conflict is may accompany the next report, due February 3, 2017.

Court challenges filed August 3 cite the “stubborn refusal” of District of Columbia and federal agencies to release records of the deal with the Trump Organization, developer of the Old Post Office Building at 12th St. and Pennsylvania Avenue N.W.

The Partnership for Civil Justice in February 2016 requested records under D.C. and federal open records laws, to learn whether the streets and sidewalks near the hotel—due to open in the fall–will remain open to the public for free speech activity. (The District has jurisdiction over activity on Pennsylvania Avenue; the federal government controls the sidewalks.)  

The Washington Post reported in February that the hotel won promises of exclusive use of a traffic lane for valet parking even during events in the street (except the Inaugural Parade). Other information suggested federal agencies gave special treatment of a plaza in front of the hotel that includes a 19th century statue of Benjamin Franklin.

Concerns have been heightened, said the plaintiffs, by statements of Mr. Trump as a candidate showing “an extraordinary and open hostility to the first Amendment.”  These, the complaint went on, suggested:

Whether Mr. Trump wins or loses, he has become a political leader whose prominent visibility, openly racist and sexist views, and significant influence on public discourse and policy will make his building on Pennsylvania Avenue a natural beacon for public protest. Trump’s marriage of capital interests, political views, Presidential ambitions, and reality TV showmanship invites protest and free speech and assembly on the public spaces near the Trump Hotel. Pennsylvania Avenue and its sidewalks, running from the White House to the Capitol grounds, are, as above, primary locations for free speech activities on all manner of issues in the Nation’s Capitol and have also been the site of many cultural events of national and local significance. The public spaces of Pennsylvania Avenue including the sidewalks and plaza abutting the Trump Hotel do not belong to Donald Trump.

The lawsuit filed in D.C. Superior Court names the Mayor and the Metropolitan Police Department that administers permits for demonstrations in the streets. A separate federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court names the U.S. Department of the Interior and the General Services Administration.

Following the initial February request, according to the lawsuit, staff for both the D.C. mayor and police department apologized in April for delays but noted backlogs. They promised to work on the Trump Hotel requests but set no specific date for release of records.  Neither produced any records in the four months that followed. The lawsuit asks the court to order the records released, at no cost, and to order the District to pay attorneys’ fees and costs. (Neither federal agency released records.)

Delays are increasingly common in D.C. agencies’ treatment of FOIA requests, according to a recent analysis by the D.C. Open Government Coalition. The Metropolitan Police Department in 2015 had hundreds of long-delayed requests and a year-end backlog as well; “no other agency was even close,” reported the Coalition.

Post columnist Colbert King has discussed the deal and the lawsuit in two pieces this month, here and here, reporting Council members in the dark but reassuring words from officials. Concluded King, “if the District keeps its word, the First Amendment will trump Trump.”

No date for further federal court action has been set. The initial scheduling conference in Superior Court is November 4. Colbert King in his second column reported an email from the administration of Mayor Muriel Bowser that they intended to resolve the litiigation with “rolling production” or release of parts of the request at intervals.

The cases are:

Partnership for Civil Justice Fund v. District of Columbia, Case No. 2016-CA-5752 (D.C. Superior Court). Complaint linked in text above.

Partnership for Civil Justice Fund v. U.S. Dep’t of the Interior and General Services Administration, Case No. 16-cv-1581 (JEB) (U.S. District Court). Complaint attached below.