By Todd Fettig
NFOIC outreach coordinator
For six years, Dennis Buckovetz worked alone, from the back bedroom of his house, uncovering the details of possible wrongdoing at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.
Buckovetz, who served in the Vietnam War as a Marine, was working as administrative director of Marine Corps Community Services at the Recruit Depot when, in 2014, he was carbon-copied on an email indicating a commanding officer was directly involved in selling Marine Corps memorabilia to fund a program of his own interest.
The December 2014 email caught Buckovetz’s attention. If the commanding officer and his reports were selling memorabilia, those sales were undermining Community Services, which for years had been authorized to sell memorabilia to fund its morale and welfare programs.
So in January 2015, Buckovetz submitted a Freedom of Information Act request, seeking the emails of several people who would know of the commanding officer’s memorabilia sales.
The request eventually uncovered 319 pages of records containing 384 emails. But Buckovetz noticed gaps, including the absence of the December 2014 email that first caught his attention.
Dennis Buckovetz uses this “back bedroom command post” in pursuing emails and details from the Marine Corps, regarding possible wrongdoing he discovered while working for Marine Corps Community Services. “I’ve tried to minimize my personal visibility throughout this effort since I didn’t seek it out, and wish it wasn’t necessary, but felt compelled to do it.”
In the months and years that followed, Buckovetz and his wife, Lynne Bird, made other attempts to obtain the missing emails, through FOIA requests and appeals. Meanwhile, the commanding officer replaced the director of Community Services. The appointee previously had been one of the commanding officer’s staffers involved in the questionable memorabilia sales.
Buckovetz retired in September 2015, but he kept pursuing the facts. He hired an attorney. Aside from his wife, his attorney and himself, he figured no one cared too much about his case and the evidence he uncovered about the possible destruction of records.
Until, that is, he applied for a grant from the Knight FOI Fund, administered by the National Freedom of Information Coalition. When Buckovetz learned his application had been approved, he was thankful for the $5,000 to help offset court fees and discovery costs. He was even more thankful for the outside affirmation: The NFOIC’s review committee evaluated his case and saw its merit.
“The only way this case got to where it is now is because I had insider knowledge,” Buckovetz said. “When I discovered this may be a case of improper withholding, my afterburners engaged. No way am I going to let this go.
“Getting the grant was huge in itself,” he said. “A neutral group of FOIA experts had reviewed the evidence so far and stepped forward to help. It was a very meaningful vote of support.”
Thomas Susman, who serves on the NFOIC committee that reviews Knight FOI Fund applications, said the panel was impressed with Buckovetz’s work, and that his case raised interesting issues.
“The plaintiffs credibly allege not just unlawful withholding, but destruction of responsive records after the FOIA request was made,” Susman said. “To us, this looks like a first cousin to a whistleblower case: Mr. Buckovetz formerly worked in the organization that he believes has been compromised by malfeasance of a self-dealing military officer. He is using the FOIA to gather information to support his suspicions of petty corruption. Looks to me like he has a good chance of proving it.”
Buckovetz remembers submitting his first-ever FOIA request, in an unrelated matter, in September 2013. He described it as “amateurish” by his standards of today, but it produced results. He was concerned that, as a government employee, he might face repercussions.
He since has filed more than 60 FOIA requests, more than 40 administrative appeals, and four FOIA lawsuits without the assistance of an attorney. He said he’s never detected any consequences, other than the monetary costs.
He has developed respect for FOIA, and has gained appreciation for its role in holding the government and its institutions and individuals accountable.
“I am astounded at the authority that the Freedom of Information Act places in the hands of any citizen who wants to use it,” Buckovetz said. “It is an entryway into the government, in which you can compel the government to respond.”