FBI ordered to pay UC Berkeley alumnus $470,000

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A federal judge ruled Oct. 17 that the Federal Bureau of Investigation must pay a UC Berkeley alumnus and former Daily Californian writer nearly half a million dollars for withholding records concerning the bureau’s covert activities during the 1950s and 60s.

Seth Rosenfeld, who first requested documents from the bureau more than three decades ago, won $470,459 in attorney fees for two lawsuits he filed against the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act in 1990 and 2007.

The two cases involved requests of records pertaining to Ronald Reagan’s role as a private informant to the FBI when he was a Hollywood actor and governor of California and the bureau’s activities on UC Berkeley’s campus during the Cold War.

Rosenfeld used the documents he received to write his book “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power,” which details the FBI’s secret involvement on campus during the 1960s.

Department of Justice attorneys, who represented the FBI, argued that the bureau did not need to pay the attorney fees because officials would have released the information anyway, according to a press release from the First Amendment Project, an Oakland-based nonprofit organization that provided legal representation to Rosenfeld. However, in his ruling earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Edward Chen found that the bureau had unreasonably withheld the requested records.

FBI officials declined to comment on the ruling.

“I’m gratified that Judge Chen has held the FBI accountable for improperly withholding public information,” said Rosenfeld, who began his research into these records in 1977 during his senior year at UC Berkeley. “I hope that this ruling will encourage government agencies to comply with the FOIA.”

The awards fees won last Wednesday will be split between the First Amendment Project and Bryan Cave, the firm that worked with Rosenfeld in filing for the fees. These awards, coupled with those won through an earlier ruling, bring the total that the FBI has had to pay Rosenfeld for attorney fees to more than $1 million, according to the press release. Additionally, the release stated that the FBI has spent more than $1 million processing the requested records.

Rosenfeld has filed a total of five lawsuits against the FBI under the FOIA. The most recent lawsuit, concerning documents related to Black Panther Party member and FBI informant Richard Aoki, is still pending a hearing date.

Contact Alex Berryhill at [email protected].