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Air Force Academy to pay $25,000 in legal fees in open records battle

January 30, 2017 Updated: January 30, 2017 at 7:57 pm
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The Air Force will pay $25,000 to cover attorney fees for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation in a Freedom of Information Act battle.

A federal district court judge in New Mexico ordered the payment last week and told the Air Force Academy to re-examine its archives for documents relating to the foundation, which goes by the acronym MRFF, and its founder Mikey Weinstein that would fall under the group's 2011 Freedom of Information Act request.

The academy acknowledged the settlement, but said it is not an admission of wrongdoing.

"Attorney's fees are not an uncommon expense for defendants in FOIA litigation, even when the parties settle without attributing fault or liability," said academy spokesman Lt. Col. Allen Herritage. "This money is not paid directly by USAFA, but rather comes out of a general Air Force Litigation fund used in instances when the Air Force is sued."

Weinsten's group, based in Albuquerque, filed a sweeping request for documents in 2011, asking for internal academy communications about the foundation and its members.

Unsatisfied with the academy's response to the request, Weinstein sued in 2015.

"After over one year of litigation, the USAFA has produced nearly 8,000 additional records to MRFF and has agreed to perform supplemental records searches for those years during which the USAFA unlawfully delayed in responding to MRFF's request," the foundation said in a news release. "USAFA has also agreed to pay MRFF's lawyers, Vincent Ward and Amber Fayerberg, $25,000 in legal fees."

Long waits for Air Force records aren't uncommon. The academy has yet to respond to a 2014 Gazette request demanding emails regarding sent between top leaders regarding athlete misconduct.

Peterson Air Force Base has yet to respond to a 2016 request for emails between leaders regarding the base's use of toxic firefighting foam suspected in contaminating wells in Security, Widefield and Fountain.

The academy said Weinstein's records request was complex and was delayed because of the time-consuming nature of tracking down records, and vetting them.

"The academy respects the settlement agreement and intends to comply with it," Herritage said. "We'd like to emphasize that each FOIA case is unique and USAFA makes every effort to process FOIA cases as promptly as possible."

For nearly 15 years, Weinstein's foundation has battled the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs over allegations of pro-Christian proselytizing in the ranks.

Weinstein made headlines last year by forcing the VA to remove Bibles from displays honoring war prisoners and those missing in action.

Weinstein, an academy graduate, has repeatedly sued the school over religious issues including a 2005 suit that claimed non-Christian cadets faced religious discrimination at the school.

The group's suits have met mixed results in court, making the latest win something Weinstein is crowing about.

"Tragically, the only thing that USAFA is even worse at than following federal disclosure requirements via FOIA is USAFA's universally deplorable record of miserably failing to adhere to the Constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state," Weinstein said in a statement.

"Today's splendid MRFF legal victory is a landmark win in MRFF's continuing fight to rebuild and buttress the shattered church-state wall at USAFA, in the Air Force at large and throughout all of the Department of Defense."


Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

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