A federal judge this week ordered the FBI to pay a San Francisco journalist almost half a million dollars for withholding records he requested under the Freedom of Information Act.
Seth Rosenfeld, a former reporter at The Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner, won $470,459 in attorneys’ fees for two lawsuits he filed – one in 1990 and another in 2007 – while researching the 1960s protest movement in Berkeley.
The lawsuits were two of five he filed against the FBI and the Justice Department starting in 1985. He requested a variety of records pertaining to the FBI’s covert operations at UC Berkeley and its secret relationship with former President Ronald Reagan.
Rosenfeld used the information he received from the FBI in articles for The Chronicle and the Examiner, as well as in his book “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power,” which was released in August.
Rosenfeld said the FBI had failed to turn over all of the documents he requested, and that it wasn’t until he engaged them in a series of legal battles that the agency released thousands of pages.
Justice Department attorneys, who represented the FBI, argued that the agency would have released the documents even if Rosenfeld hadn’t filed suit. They said “bureaucratic difficulty, not recalcitrant behavior” slowed the releases.
U.S. District Judge Edward Chen found in his ruling Wednesday that Rosenfeld was “largely the prevailing party” in the suits. Throughout the litigation, Chen said, the court found that the FBI did not adequately search for many of the requested documents.
The money will go to the nonprofit First Amendment Project of Oakland, which represented Rosenfeld pro bono, and to the San Francisco law firm of Bryan Cave.
“I hope this ruling and other rulings in the case will make it easier for journalists, historians and members of the public to find out what their government is up to,” said Rosenfeld, who previously was awarded more than $560,000 in attorneys’ fees.