Chronicle Sues OPIC

Weekly Seeks Records On Insurance Cancellation

On Wednesday, Sept. 4, The Austin Chronicle filed suit against the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). The move was the latest action taken by this paper in an effort to obtain records, photos, and other documents from the federal agency which last October cancelled its $100 million political risk insurance policy on Freeport-McMoran Copper & Gold's mining operation in Irian Jaya, Indonesia.

The Chronicle filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, alleging that OPIC has illegally withheld documents, photos and other records that will allow the public to understand why the agency cancelled Freeport's insurance. OPIC's unprecedented termination has sent shock waves through the international mining industry. It came after years of allegations by environmental groups that tailings from Freeport's mine were causing extensive damage to local waterways. (After arbitration sessions, OPIC agreed in April to reinstate Freeport's insurance, but just until the end of the year.)

"We have been very patient with OPIC," says Chronicle editor Louis Black. "We called them repeatedly to remind them of our requests and we've sent them appeals of their denials. We had no choice but to sue. The cancellation of Freeport's insurance is extremely important not just for the citizens of Austin, but for people around the world who are concerned about the effects of mining and multinational corporations on the environment."

Under the FOIA, OPIC has released more than 3,500 pages of documents to the Chronicle. But most of these are newspaper accounts, and the key documents, produced by OPIC and OPIC's consultants, have been heavily redacted. Any information that might reflect badly on the agency or on Freeport appears to have been deleted.

The suit, known as Robert Bryce and The Austin Chronicle Corporation v. the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and filed by Peter Kennedy of the Austin law firm of George Donaldson & Ford, says that OPIC has violated the FOIA in several instances, and in others has simply ignored its duties under the law. It claims that "The documents not produced by OPIC, and the information redacted from the documents produced by OPIC, are subject to disclosure" under FOIA, and that by withholding the documents, OPIC is violating the Chronicle's First Amendment rights, and its rights of due process and equal protection.

The suit asks the court to take jurisdiction in the case, and to order OPIC to give the Chronicle all of the information requested under the FOIA, including that which has been redacted.

According to a letter from OPIC's general counsel Charles Toy to Kennedy, the agency is entitled under FOIA exemptions to withhold factual information included in "predecisional, deliberative" documents such as those relating to its decision to cancel Freeport's insurance. n

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