FOIA Advisor

FOIA Focus: Michael Bekesha, Attorney, Judicial Watch, Inc.

FOIA Focus (2015-16)Allan BlutsteinComment

How long have you been working in the FOIA field?

I first “discovered” FOIA in my administrative law course during my second year of law school.  I think we spent 10 minutes on it, and I did not give it much thought.  I then applied to various organizations in D.C. for a summer internship and I was fortunate enough to receive an offer from Judicial Watch, which uses FOIA frequently.  After I graduated from law school and took the bar, I started working full time at Judicial Watch as an attorney.  In August, I will have been at Judicial Watch for 7 years (including my summer internship).

What are your current job duties at Judicial Watch?

Unlike the traditional practice of law, current events usually dictate my activities.  With respect to Judicial Watch’s FOIA work, I assist the Research & Investigation department in developing investigations and submitting FOIA requests, review FOIA requests to determine whether they are litigation worthy, and handle FOIA lawsuits from start to finish, which, on two occasions, meant everything from drafting the complaint to filing the cert petition.  In addition, I work with other organizations, the news media, and Congress on issues uncovered by Judicial Watch’s FOIA work.  Besides FOIA, Judicial Watch also litigates rule of law issues.  Most recently, on behalf of a D.C. taxpayer, I filed suit seeking to enjoin members of Congress and certain congressional staffers from purchasing health insurance through the “Small Business Exchange.”

What is the most unusual agency response you have received to a FOIA request?

Any time an agency produces all responsive records in their entirety, I think it is unusual.

Of all the FOIA matters you have worked on, which has received the most prominent media coverage? 

You never know what the media is going to cover.  You may think the records you received are of the utmost importance; however, they barely get noticed.  Two FOIA matters stand out:

1.  After the death of Senator Ted Kennedy, Judicial Watch, like many other entities, submitted a FOIA request for the late senator’s FBI file.  Judicial Watch subsequently sued.  During litigation, the FBI eventually released one page that it had been withholding under a claim of national security.  In it, the FBI had noted that, “While Kennedy was in Santiago he made arrangements to ‘rent’ a brothel for an entire night.  Kennedy allegedly invited one of the Embassy chauffeurs to participate in the night’s activities.”  When we released the record to the public, it went viral.

2.  Of a completely different nature, Judicial Watch requested and sued for the post-mortem images of Osama bin Laden.  We challenged the withholdings all of the way to the Supreme Court.  News media organizations around the world covered our legal filings the entire way.

What do you like and not like about working on FOIA matters?

FOIA exposes you to many different components of the federal government.  One day I was litigating records concerning the financial bailouts.  The next day, I was briefing whether the post-mortem images of bin Laden were properly classified.  I also sent a request for the audio files of Beyoncé singing the national anthem after it was revealed that she lip-synced her performance at the 2012 Inauguration.

FOIA is frustrating.  Although it is supposed to favor the requester, it doesn’t -- especially when it comes to the courts.  FOIA really is becoming more of a withholding statute than a disclosure statute.  Congress needs to rein in the Executive Branch’s abuse of the various FOIA exemptions.

If you could change one thing about the FOIA, what would it be and why? 

Once a requester sends a request, he is left in the dark.  A requester is just stuck waiting for the agency to get back to him.  There needs to be more transparency and accountability in the process.

If the government would release any document(s) you requested, what would you ask for and why?

There is not one particular document I would ask for; however, I generally would love to see the records of deliberations about whether to release certain records.

Where were you born/grow up?

I grew up in Framingham, Massachusetts, which is just 20 miles west of Boston.

Where have you attended school and what did you study?  

I was a political science major at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.  I attended law school at the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Law.

What was your first job ever?  What did you like or not like about it?

Kelly’s Roast Beef and Seafood.  I worked the register, but also other duties as needed.  I liked it because it involved problem solving and required me to think quickly on my feet.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I am a season ticket holder of the Washington Nationals.  I am also heavily involved as an alumni volunteer with Northwestern University in both alumni relations and development.

What are some of your favorite books?  Television shows?

President Obama was just asked this same question.  The news media analyzed his answers to determine what it means about him.  I don’t know what my answer means, but I don’t read as much as I should or I would like to.  However, I always enjoy John Grisham’s latest novel.

Favorite television show is easy: Sports Night and -- like most of my generation -- The West Wing.

What is your most memorable travel experience?

I love Rome.  One minute you are stepping back into ancient Rome.  The next minute you are enjoying its modern culinary scene.  Lots of small neighborhoods in this ancient city.  You just don’t get that in the U.S.