Jenna Greene reports in the National Law Journal (reg) on the Judgment Fund, an obscure entity within the federal government that last year paid to settle more than 5,000 lawsuits against federal agencies. For the most part, its payouts are not subtracted from agency budgets, and overall dollar figures tend to be dominated by a few special situations such as (most recently) lawsuits by utilities over alleged Energy Department breach of contract for nuclear fuel storage, and by Indian tribes against the Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture over financial mismanagement and alleged discrimination. A smaller, but controversial, category of payouts that has attracted Congressional attention consists of settlements with “cause” organizations such as environmentalists that sue to force policy change.
“The strange thing is the lack of transparency,” said Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies. “Settlements deserve scrutiny.…There’s no reason why as a public process there shouldn’t be fine-grained disclosure.”
In April, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) introduced the Judgment Fund Transparency Act of 2011, which would require Treasury (unless barred by a court order or law) to make public the names of plaintiffs and counsel, plus a brief description of the facts that gave rise to the payments and a breakdown of principal and attorney fees.
However, Greene reports, the Issa measure has attracted no co-sponsors and is stuck in House Judiciary with no apparent plans for action.