Whatever you do, don’t question the mug. The Federal Communication Commission wants more than $200 to release emails related to chairman Ajit Pai’s novelty, oversized coffee mug under the Freedom of Information Act.
The mug gained mild notoriety after Pai was photographed with the drinking vessel, which is emblazoned with the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups logo. But when Taylor Amarel, a frequent FOIA-filer who secured the release of Pai’s calendar earlier this year, requested all of Pai’s executive assistant’s emails that included terms such as "reeses", "mug", or "Reese's,” the FCC pushed back.
First, correspondence posted to public records platform MuckRock shows FCC attorney advisor Ryan Yates questioned whether Amarel was using a pseudonym and demanded his name, personal mailing address, and phone number, which is not required under FOIA law. Still, Amarel complied only to have the FCC respond again, this time asserting that digging up these emails would take more than four hours of work and cost an estimated $232.89.
“This is the first time I’ve seen anything remotely close to this kind of cost when requesting emails from the FCC,” JPat Brown, executive editor of MuckRock, where the request was filed, told me over the phone. (Disclosure: Motherboard files FOIA requests using MuckRock's platform).
Brown explained that the FCC seemed to be shielding itself by processing the request under a specific fee category in order to charge Amarel more. Most FOIA requests are commercial, from lawyers or private businesses, and are charged at a higher rate. The remaining requests are deemed either “media/research” or “all other,” with the former requests getting hit with the least amount of fees.
“That’s the most forgiving level of fee category in which you are not charged for search times, you only have to pay for duplication costs,” Brown said. “The argument is that you’re using the law for its intended purpose to try to spread transparency.”
But the FCC categorized Amarel’s request as “all other,” resulting in the higher fees, which Amarel is now trying to crowdsource in order to cover.
Over the last year, the FCC has consistently stonewalled seemingly inoffensive FOIA request, often using an obscure exemption to avoid releasing documents related to Pai’s “Harlem shake” video or a joke he made about being in the pocket of Big Telecom. But the stubborn refusal to release any of these documents has created a Barbara Streisand effect: drawing more attention than likely would have resulted from just complying with the FOIA request.
“The fact that they’re so terrified of any level of criticism that they’re willing to come out with these ridiculous fees—and, honestly in this case, borderline intimidation—to cover up a stupidly oversized mug, is entirely unsurprising and in keeping with the FCC and the Trump administration,” Brown said.
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