Clinton's Secrecy Damages the Foundation of Our Democracy

06/15/2015 06:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

Recent reports that Secretary Clinton's chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, interfered in Freedom of Information Act requests are a reminder of Secretary Clinton's troubling history of secrecy. These revelations reveal a wanton disregard for open government by Secretary Clinton and an unapologetic willingness to circumvent our democratic systems and processes.

Effective democracy is predicated on an informed populace making decisions at the ballot box, and communicating concerns to their representatives. Government cannot be truly representative without public accountability; and this requires transparency. If we don't know how our government officials make decisions, we cannot ensure that they act in our best interest.

According to the news reports, after the State Department released documents about Keystone XL to Friends of the Earth, Mills decreed all documents on Keystone XL must pass her reviewed; she then blocked sensitive materials from being turned over. Mills went so far as to not comply with any future FOIA request unless particular documents were withheld. Until now, Friends of the Earth had no indication that documents were being improperly withheld. It now seems likely that four years after we filed our initial FOIA request, the State Department is still withholding documents they are legally obligated to release.

That the actions of Cheryl Mills and other high ranking State Department staff were illegal under the Freedom of Information Act is arguable. That their actions undermined the intent of this bedrock law, however, is undeniable.

The Freedom of Information Act provides the public with the right to demand documents from the Executive Branch and instructs agencies to operate with a "general philosophy of full agency disclosure." By hiding her communications with lobbyists for companies hoping to receive permits from the State Department, Secretary Clinton did not adhere to the spirit of "full agency disclosure."

These most recent revelations only add to the history of secrecy that surrounds Secretary Clinton's governance, and make it clear that she does not appreciate the importance of open government to a healthy democracy.

In March, the New York Times reported that Secretary Clinton used a personal email account to conduct official government business. Federal law requires that the emails of public officials be kept as government documents for disclosure to the public upon request. Secretary Clinton's exclusive use of a private account during her four-year tenure prevented the State Department -- and thus the public- from having access. Not a single email from Secretary Clinton appeared among the documents produced for Friends of the Earth in response to our FOIA request, even though we explicitly asked for them. It is now clear that any communications that Secretary Clinton had regarding Keystone XL could not be provided to us because they were not in the hands of the State Department.

After the revelation about Secretary Clinton's email usage surfaced, she handed a copy of over 55,000 pages of email communications from her private email account to the State Department. However, she only did so after her council deleted tens of thousands of emails that Secretary Clinton deemed personal. This allowed Secretary Clinton to be the arbiter of what communications the public should be able to access.

Secretary Clinton has effectively asserted that she has the right to determine which of her communications are relevant to the public. Secretary Clinton's staff blocking the release of documents already in the possession of the State Department clearly illustrates why she and her lawyers should be not the arbiters of which FOIA documents she is obliged to release.

We began our inquiry into the influence that oil interests had in the Keystone XL process when Secretary Clinton abandoned all impartiality and publicly stated, "We haven't finished all of the analysis. So as I say, we've not yet signed-off on it, but we are inclined to do so..." This was followed by a simple investigation which uncovered close ties between Secretary Clinton and lobbyists for oil and gas interests that stood to gain from the construction of the pipeline. These relationships included TransCanada hiring a former director of Secretary Clinton's presidential campaign, Paul Elliott, as a lobbyist.

Recent revelations about the donations made to Secretary Clinton's foundations by oil interests and foreign governments with large fossil fuel reserves have only deepened our concerns about the role that financial contributions had on her decisions while heading the State Department. As an example, a recent investigative report alleges that the Clinton Foundation received money from the head of a Colombian oil company before Secretary Clinton came out in support of a trade deal with Colombia despite serious concerns at the time over Colombia's human rights violations. Secretary Clinton also received hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from banks heavily invested in TransCanada, the company that wants to build Keystone XL, as well as from the arm of a Canadian agency pushing Keystone XL.

It's not clear that we have seen the full extent of Secretary Clinton's disconcerting ties to corporate polluters. The Clinton Foundation recently reported an additional $26.4 million in previously undisclosed contributions. The Clintons recorded these payments s as 'revenue' from speeches they delivered rather than charitable donations and excluded them from the foundation's annual reports. Until recently, money from foreign corporations, such as $500,000 from the natural gas production company, Beijing Huadup Enterprise Consulting Company Ltd., and a contribution from the government of Thailand, were kept secret. Included in that total is a $250,000 contribution by Citibank for a speech Secretary Clinton.

It is disingenuous to say that some of the richest and most well-connected companies in the world are donating to the Clinton Foundation, or any other cause, without expecting a return on their investment.

Secretary Clinton's inclination to govern in secret undermined, not only FOIA--a bedrock law on good governance in the United States--but demonstrates that when high-ranking officials conceal their activities from the public, they violate the most basic tenet of democracy: "government of the people, by the people, and for the people."