Blogs | Ethan Shorey

Tip of the cap to Phil Eil

Phil Eil is my Sunshine Week star of the week after finally being rewarded for his persistence in trying to keep government accountable.

If you follow the former editor of the Providence Phoenix on Twitter, you know that he frequently expresses his frustration with the Drug Enforcement Administration for not giving him the documents he's requested about the famous Volkman drug trafficking trial.

Eil finally got his due this week when the ACLU of Rhode Island filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit on his behalf.

According to a news release from the ACLU, Eil, has been stymied for more than three years in his effort to obtain access to thousands of pages of public evidence from the major prescription drug-dealing trial. The FOIA lawsuit, against the DEA, seeks a court order to release the documents, a declaration that the DEA has wrongfully withheld and redacted documents, and an award of attorney fees. Filing the suit were ACLU volunteer attorneys Neal McNamara and Jessica Jewell, from the law firm of Nixon Peabody.

The request Eil requested pertains to evidence used to convict Dr. Paul Volkman, a man the Department of Justice has called the “largest physician dispenser of oxycodone in the United States from 2003 to 2005.” Volkman was indicted on 22 drug trafficking-related counts in 2007, and, in 2011, after an eight-week federal court trial in Ohio that included 70 witnesses and more than 220 exhibits, he was convicted of, among other charges, prescribing medications that caused the overdose deaths of four patients. In 2012, Volkman was sentenced to four consecutive life terms in federal prison, one of the lengthiest criminal sentences for a physician in U.S. history.

Volkman attended college and medical school with Eil’s father, and, in 2009, Eil began conducting research and reporting for a book about the case. After Volkman’s trial ended, Eil requested access to the trial evidence from the clerk of the U.S. District Court in Cincinnati. The request was denied, as were Eil’s subsequent requests to the Ohio U.S. Attorney’s office, the U.S. District Court judge who presided over the case, and the clerk of the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

On February 1, 2012, Eil filed a FOIA request with the executive office of U.S. Attorneys, which eventually transferred the request to the DEA nine months later. The DEA still has not completely fulfilled the request, despite numerous efforts by Eil to expedite a response, says the ACLU. Pending with the DEA for more than 800 days, Eil’s request is eight months older than what the federal government-operated website, FOIA.gov, reports as the agency’s longest pending request.

In addition to the time it has taken to process the request, the DEA has withheld 87 percent of the 12,724 pages it has processed for Eil’s FOIA request, and stripped most of the substantive information from the remaining 1,600 pages it has “released.” For example, as the lawsuit notes, one of the nine installments of releases to Eil included “a 133-page slide show where the substance from nearly every single slide is redacted.” In another one of the “partial releases” of information, the DEA withheld 1,225 of 1,232 pages it processed.

“You can’t have a true democracy without a transparent court system, and this case represents an egregious failure of judicial transparency,” said Eil in a statement. “The right to a public trial is a basic tenet of our society, and it’s scary to think that any trial in the United States, especially one of this magnitude, would be retroactively sealed off from public view, as this case has.”

Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, added: “All too often at both the state and federal level, agencies address the public’s right to know as they would an exceedingly unpleasant chore - reluctantly, with some disdain, and with little care for the finished product - instead of as the fundamental and essential engine of democracy that it is. Mr. Eil’s efforts and this lawsuit are a reminder of the importance of persistence in holding government agencies accountable to the public.”

Eil is an award-winning freelance journalist who, most recently, was news editor and staff writer of the Providence Phoenix until the paper’s closing last year. He has taught classes on writing and journalism at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he will return as an adjunct lecturer in September. He has conducted more than 100 interviews, across 19 states, for his book about the Volkman case.

According to the ACLU, the DEA’s actions in Eil’s case follow a "disturbing pattern" of FOIA-related behavior from the agency in recent years. In 2012, reason.com reported that DEA FOIA rejections had increased 114 percent since 2008, and earlier this year, the agency told a FOIA requester it would cost $1.4 million to process his request.

Eil filed his suit on Wednesday of Sunshine Week, a week designated to educate the public about the importance of open government.

"The DEA has had my #FOIA request for more than 800 days," tweeted Eil. "Today, I'm suing them. Happy #SunshineWeek."

I responded that up until now he's probably just been that "whiny Twitter dude to them."

"Today, I say to my fellow whiny Twitter dudes: 'There's hope,'" he responded.

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