The Salt Lake Tribune, May 11, 2003
By Christopher Smith
WASHINGTON — Working from her austere Salt Lake City apartment or a nearby public library for more than a decade, Barbara Schwarz has carpet-bombed every federal department and agency with thousands of requests for public records the government says don’t exist.
With no legal training, she has filed dozens of lawsuits against thousands of federal employees around the country, claiming they have withheld information on her Utah hometown, which can’t be found on any map.
And she has written hundreds of letters to the White House, demanding to know the whereabouts of a husband she contends was falsely imprisoned for her own murder.
A twisted plot, to be sure, but one that can be recited almost chapter and verse by a legion of civil servants and judges who have dutifully waded through pages of her screeds since they began appearing shortly after she moved to Salt Lake City in 1989 from Europe in search of a murky past.
The U.S. Department of Justice contends Schwarz has made more requests under the landmark public records statute known as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) than any other person since it became law in 1966. A blueprint for open democracy and government accountability in other countries, the FOIA has been stretched to its limits by a reclusive woman who, by her own admission, is in the country illegally.
A Salt Lake Tribune review of federal court records and Justice Department annual reports on FOIA litigation shows at least one of Schwarz’s lawsuits has been considered by a U.S. District or U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals somewhere in the nation every year since 1993. She also has filed unsuccessful appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1998 alone, Schwarz, who always acts as her own attorney and claims indigency to avoid paying court filing fees, had a caseload any rising lawyer would be proud of: 10 of her actions against the government were reviewed in federal courts in Utah, Maryland, West Virginia, Colorado, New York and the District of Columbia.
The slightly built woman in her late 40s with wavy dark hair rarely appears in court and has never won any of her lawsuits. One of her complaints filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., set a record for voluminous litigation at 2,370 pages, naming 3,087 defendants, all of whom were employed as FOIA or “Privacy Act” officers in the federal government. Some of those workers have dubbed her a “FOIA terrorist” and coined a verb reflective of her unending request letters: “Have you been Schwarzed today?”
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals based in Denver and the D.C. District Court each have ruled that Schwarz’s FOIA requests are frivolous and a waste of government resources. Both courts have enjoined or drastically limited her right to file future appeals within either jurisdiction.
“Imaginary conspiracy”: The FOIA’s “admirable purpose is abused when misguided individuals are allowed (in this case repeatedly) to submit requests to every agency and subdivision of the government, seeking information about an imaginary conspiracy,” U.S. District Court Judge John Bates wrote in a September ruling against Schwarz in Washington.
The Justice Department has taken the unusual step of notifying all of the thousands of federal employees charged with administering the FOIA that until Schwarz satisfies outstanding search and copying charges she incurred from various federal agencies, they can legally deny her continued requests for records. While senior Justice Department officials acknowledge such governmentwide notification of what they term a “exceptional” requester has only happened once or twice before in the history of the law, they say Schwarz is being treated no differently than anyone else.
”In the case of any FOIA requester who defaults or reneges on a commitment to pay, whether he or she has made two requests or 2,000, there would be a basis for the request not to be acted upon until the default is corrected,” said Daniel Metcalfe, co-director of the Justice Department’s Office of Information and Privacy. “It’s certainly true that when Ms. Schwarz brought suit against virtually every government agency and subpart, that created an interagency focus that otherwise might not have existed.”
But Schwarz is not giving up. She says she can’t. Every boilerplate rejection letter from the federal government only widens the circle of suspicion that spawns more requests. And until she knows the answers to her questions, she says she is incapable of moving on with her life.
“I have no money for this but I am forced to do it because the purpose of the law is to reveal, not conceal, and government should be transparent,” she said in a recent interview in a Salt Lake City restaurant. “When I started this journey, I never imagined it would take so long.”
That quest, according to a September 2001 governmentwide memo on Schwarz issued by the Office of Information and Privacy, is “all based on unique personal notions that, most charitably stated, are entirely fanciful in nature.”
Schwarz believes she was born in approximately 1956 at a secretive government compound “submarine base” called Chattanooga on the Great Salt Lake, the alleged daughter of Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and the granddaughter of President Eisenhower, although there is no proof of any such place or relationship.
The ensuing story reads like a science fiction novel — kidnapping by Nazis, mind control, conspiracy, hidden fortunes, faked deaths, insane asylums, cover-ups and microchips implanted in unsuspecting peoples’ heads. Besides constantly referencing the tale in her FOIA requests and court filings, Schwarz has posted it in more than 80 parts on the Web newsgroup alt.religion.scientology.
“This is when people say, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” she says. “But I remember all those things so clearly, it’s not like I just made it up. I need to know the truth of it and not to bury my perceptions.”
That includes her belief she was once married to a man named Mark Rathbun who has been framed for her death and is being held somewhere in the United States, waiting for her to testify as his “relief witness” so that he can be cleared of the crime and the pair can be reunited.
Rathbun is, however, a high-ranking official of the Church of Scientology International, headquartered in Los Angeles. “We’re clueless about this person and obviously she is delusional about Mr. Rathbun and she needs help,” says Linda Simmons Hight, director of media relations for the church. “We’re sorry for her.”
When Schwarz is shown a recent photo of Rathbun from the church, she maintains it is not the same man she has asked the federal government to help her locate. She describes herself as a “nonorganized” scientologist who was “kicked out” of the church in Germany in the mid-1980s. University of Utah history professor Robert Goldberg, who has studied the subculture of conspiracy theorists, says Schwarz’s manifestations seem based in the reality that the U.S. government does have a cult of secrecy. For instance, the federal Information Security Oversight Office’s most recent study showed the number of government records classified as secret increased 44 percent in 2001 from the previous year, to more than 33 million.
Guarding secrets: “The context here is the government loves to keep secrets and it guards those secrets very zealously,” says Goldberg, author of Enemies Within: the Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America. “So when the federal government says you have everything we have on this subject and there’s nothing, that only feeds more fuel to the fire in her soul.”
Adding to the cycle of Schwarz’s repeated requests is one of the virtues of the FOIA law: administrators are not to render judgment on the merits of the information being sought in a request. Those determinations only can be made at the judicial level once a requester loses an administrative appeal of a FOIA denial and files suit.
“Who’s to say that one person’s request has more validity than anyone else’s?” says William Ferroggiaro, director of the Freedom of Information Project of the National Security Archive at George Washington University and president of the American Society of Access Professionals. “It’s value neutral. In a way, she is using the law as it is intended even if her efforts cannot be characterized as anything but bizarre.”
One of the other aspects of the FOIA law — which has gained increased scrutiny in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — is that it may be used by citizens and foreign nationals alike. In some cases, fugitives of federal justice have filed FOIA requests and received responses, since only the courts may declare that a person who has flouted the laws of the land may not benefit from them.
Schwarz says she entered the United States on a visitor visa in the late 1980s and tried unsuccessfully for years to adjust her status with the Immigration and Naturalization Service before giving up. She says she has a German birth certificate but claims it was doctored to conceal that she was actually born in Utah.
Fighting INS: “I have tried to get it worked out with the INS,” says Schwarz. “They could probably arrest me or throw me out of the country for filing FOIA requests, but I’m not easily scared.”
While the FOIA law is open to all, it does not guarantee free access to government information. Although Schwarz always requests that the standard fees for searching and copying records be deferred because she is poor and the request is in the public interest, a federal judge in the nation’s capital ruled in 2001 that she didn’t deserve a fee waiver because her disclosure would not “contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government.”
As a result, the Department of Justice began tracking her outstanding FOIA bills and using those debts to disqualify further requests, beginning with a $16.80 balance due to the Salt Lake field office of the FBI.
“Anyone can see I’m not rich; I haven’t bought new clothes for 12 years,” says Schwarz, who does not hold a job or driver license and relies on a monthly stipend sent from relatives in Germany to pay for her rent, utilities and food. “I finally paid the FBI bill and two days later the chief counsel of the division said I owed $303.30 to the Veterans Administration. They are generating fees behind my back so they don’t process my requests and it’s spread to every agency.”
To her, it’s all part of the conspiracy.
“This circle is never going to close,” says Goldberg. “Perhaps having this cause and mission gives her a will to live.”
But Schwarz says being labeled a kook and an “FOIA terrorist” is not how she had hoped to find fame.
“It’s not that this is my hobby and I don’t have anything better to do,” she says. “I would love to just write fiction and have a life. But I’m an optimist. I believe something will come my way that will end this.”