WASHINGTON - On his first full day in office, President Obama ordered federal officials to "usher in a new era of open government" and "act promptly" to make information public.
As Obama nears the end of his term, his administration hasn't met those goals, failing to follow the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act, according to an analysis of open-government requests filed by Bloomberg News.
Nineteen of 20 Cabinet-level agencies disobeyed the law requiring the disclosure of public information - in this case, the cost of travel by top officials. In all, just eight of the 57 federal agencies met Bloomberg's request for those documents within the 20-day window required by the act.
"When it comes to implementation of Obama's wonderful transparency policy goals, especially FOIA policy in particular, there has been far more 'talk the talk' rather than 'walk the walk,' " said Daniel Metcalfe, director of the Department of Justice's office monitoring the government's compliance with FOIA requests from 1981 to 2007.
The Bloomberg survey was designed in part to gauge the timeliness of responses, which Attorney General Eric Holder called "an essential component of transparency" in a March 2009 memo. About half of the 57 agencies eventually disclosed the out-of-town travel expenses generated by their top official by Sept. 14, most of them well past the legal deadline.
Bloomberg reporters in June filed FOIA requests for fiscal year 2011 taxpayer-supported travel for Cabinet secretaries and top officials of major departments. Justice Department official Melanie Ann Pustay said in an interview that disclosure of those records is in the public interest.
Even agency heads who publicly announce their events - including Holder, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius - didn't provide the costs of their out-of-town trips more than three months after the initial request.
The travel costs generated by some other Obama officials - Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, and Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano - also remain undisclosed.
Government travel costs have received greater scrutiny since a report by the General Services Administration's inspector general on April 2 revealed that a 2010 Las Vegas junket - featuring a mind reader and a clown - cost taxpayers more than $823,000. Since then, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson has resigned and the IG has referred the matter to the Department of Justice.
Under Obama, federal agencies also have stepped up the use of exemptions to block the release of information.
During the first year of the administration, Cabinet agencies employed exemptions 466,402 times, a 50 percent jump from the last year of the presidency of George W. Bush.
Open-government advocates note that Obama's transparency pledge is undermined by a federal bureaucracy that often cites staff shortages and compliance costs to delay the release of information.
Miriam Nisbet, the head of the Office of Government Information Services, which acts as an FOIA ombudsman, said Obama deserves praise for highlighting government accountability.
"We see a great deal of emphasis and attention paid to transparency," she said. "That is a really important message."
Nisbet's office offered travel documents three days after acknowledging the FOIA request.
The Bloomberg FOIA filing also asked each department to identify trips, lodging and meals provided by non-federal sources. All told, 30 of the 57 agencies contacted replied with those travel records by Sept. 14.
Of the 20 Cabinet-level agencies contacted by Bloomberg News, only the Small Business Administration met the legal 20-day deadline by disclosing that Administrator Karen Mills took 27 trips out of Washington at a total cost to the U.S. taxpayer of $15,856.
The records of Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner; Labor Secretary Hilda Solis; former Secretary of Commerce and acting Secretary Gary Locke and Rebecca Blank; U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk; and Jacob Lew, the former director of the Office and Management and Budget who is now White House chief of staff, were released to Bloomberg News under the request, though those agencies did not meet the 20-day deadline.
The Freedom of Information Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, is designed to open up the process of government to citizens. Individuals have the right to file requests, and the law mandates that the department answer the query within 20 working days, ask for a 10-day extension, or offer a timetable for the release of the information.