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Government A Florida orthodontist's FOIA-fueled anti-Clinton crusade

A Florida orthodontist’s FOIA-fueled anti-Clinton crusade

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As one of the ugliest political contests in U.S. history nears its end, a Florida orthodontist-turned-devoted political activist finds himself in a strange position: He doesn’t plan to vote.

Larry Kawa’s afternoons are busy with school-age patients; “your smile is the signature of our reputation,” reads the website for his Boca Raton practice. Mornings, he devotes time to his other work-digging up evidence of the ways he says Clinton and the Obama administration have undermined national security and flouted the law. He has tried to accomplish this through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which, like Kawa, turned 50 this year.

Kawa’s FOIA requests are part of a documentary trail that winds into and out of Clinton’s private e-mail server when she was secretary of state-the grass roots of an ongoing effort by conservative members of Congress and the conservative legal group Judicial Watch to vindicate their belief that Clinton broke the law and exposed national secrets.

Kawa does not support Trump in the race for president, but even as Clinton’s lead has widened, he is still trying to expose what he calls a crisis in government accountability that transcends party lines.

“Americans deserve transparency, regardless of what side of the aisle you’re on,” he says. “And if Hillary Clinton were a Republican, I wouldn’t feel any different.”

Kawa grew up in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn where, he says, the only Republicans he saw were on television. He moved to Florida in the 1990s to set up shop as an orthodontist and largely ignored politics until 2012.

By then, he’d begun to feel the country was going to hell under President Barack Obama. He decided it was time to start “kicking and screaming.”

He raised money for Mitt Romney, then turned to less conventional activism after Romney’s loss. In 2013, backed by Judicial Watch, he sued over the rollout of Obamacare’s mandate that employers provide health insurance to their employees; that lawsuit was eventually dismissed. He also began buying up politics-oriented domain names, including HillaryforPresident.com, VoteHillary.com, and USAPresident.com; he now owns about 4,000.

He also began to file FOIA requests.

Some focused on the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in which the U.S. ambassador was killed. Others sought communications on the government’s strategy fighting ISIS, government research results and recommendations on the Keystone XL pipeline, and the release of Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier held by the Taliban for five years.

FOIAs, Kawa says, became his way of “checking management.” He estimates he’s filed over 100, with at least 50 outstanding.

He’s rarely gotten an answer that satisfies him. Agencies, he says, delay requests, citing “unusual circumstances” for not responding within the required time frame. In 2014, he asked for Clinton’s communications with the White House on the day of the Benghazi attack and the week following. The State Department provided nothing, and Judicial Watch helped Kawa sue. The case dragged on after the FBI revealed that its investigation recovered over 14,000 deleted e-mails from Clinton’s private e-mail server, and the court ordered the State Department to search them as well. Kawa moved last week to dismiss the case; he expects new FOIAs eventually to uncover Benghazi-related communications.

The State Department said in an e-mailed statement that FOIA requests have more than tripled since 2008, from 6,000 to more than 20,000 per year, and that the requests are frequently more complex and seek larger volumes of documents than before.

“We are working diligently to respond,” said spokesman Mark Toner in the statement. “Our available resources are constrained by the demands of numerous active FOIA cases. We must assess our ability to respond to each FOIA request against our commitments in a large number of other FOIAs-many of which also relate to former Secretary Clinton.”

One FOIA did get Kawa more than he expected. As the Clinton e-mail scandal gained momentum in March 2015, Kawa sought her OF-109, a form certifying that departing State Department employees no longer possess or have access to classified information. Eight months later, the agency sent him documents he hadn’t asked for-itself indicative, he says, of how disorganized the FOIA process is.

Among them were non-disclosure agreements governing handling of classified information. By signing them, Clinton acknowledged she could be guilty of a crime if she exposed classified information or failed to return it at the end of her employment, both of which Kawa contends she did by using a private e-mail server and not turning it over when she left the agency.

Kawa also noticed signatures missing from other parts of the form, including a box acknowledging a security briefing, which he argued was evidence of Clinton’s negligence on matters of national security. (The conservative news website the Daily Caller has made its own push for information on Clinton’s and her aides’ security clearance and training through a FOIA lawsuit; Kawa says he has provided it with the agency documents.)

In July, when the FBI completed its investigation into Clinton’s private server and handling of classified information, director James Comey called her “extremely careless” but did not recommend charges against her.

Kawa is still fuming over that, as are several Republican congressional committee chairmen who this month wrote to the attorney general to demand information (PDF) on the FBI probe.

“The career officials at the FBI and the Justice Department already thoroughly investigated this matter, and closed the case with no further action,” said Clinton spokesman Glen Caplin in an emailed statement. “There are many blatantly partisan attempts to keep this issue alive and hurt Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.”

Kawa believes there is more to be found in chasing Clinton’s e-mails. He takes credit for giving Judicial Watch the idea to pursue Clinton communications saved on backup devices by a service provider for her e-mail system; the group filed that FOIA to the FBI last week. (Judicial Watch declined to discuss its sources.) He’s also filed new FOIAs on Benghazi, trying to get transcripts of officials’ emergency phone conferences and drone footage of the attack.

“If you let one administration obstruct the FOIA process, then the next one-whether it’s Republican or Democrat-they’re going to obstruct it, too,” he says. “Transparency has no party.”

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