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Planned Parenthood Center in Knoxville, Tennessee.Knoxville Fire Department

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee (LifeSiteNews) — A Knoxville pro-life reporter who for years has been trying to uncover the truth behind the 2021 arson of a local Planned Parenthood facility filed a federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for the law enforcement agency’s noncompliance with two previous document requests.

Knoxville’s Planned Parenthood location burned down on New Year’s Eve 2021 in a fire the Knoxville Fire Department (KFD) soon determined to be arson. 

The abortion center had been closed for renovation and expansion since December 7. The facility was scheduled to reopen in mid-February, with both the original expansion and rebuilding projected to cost in the neighborhood of $2.2 million. The following November, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) identified the alleged perpetrator as Mark Reno, a man who had already died while in police custody on unrelated charges. But as Jennifer Hay has documented for LifeSiteNews since the story began, numerous unanswered questions lingered.

This week, attorneys representing Hay filed a suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee accusing the Bureau of acting in violation of the Freedom of Information Act by not complying with her previous FOIA requests for records to answer some of those questions. 

“A Federal agency is required to provide the requested information within twenty (20) days, unless an unusual circumstance exists necessitating more time to respond, or if the agency states there is a valid exemption which is applicable,” reads the complaint reviewed by LifeSiteNews. “If a public record is within the scope of a valid FOIA exemption, and if the agency in question has met their burden of proof to show that an exemption is valid and appropriate, the record must still be disclosed unless the agency can reasonably foresee that the release of the requested information would cause a harm to an interest the claimed exemption protects. Notwithstanding the foregoing paragraph, an agency must take reasonable steps to release any non-exempt information.”

The suit seeks a court order “declaring that FBI violated FOIA by improperly withholding records in the First Request and/or the Second Request”; “directing FBI to provide copies of the requested records, or copies with only those redactions deemed proper by the Court, as expeditiously as possible”; and awarding Hay “reasonable attorney’s fees and costs” as well as “other such relief as is deemed just and proper by the Court.”

Among the questions the case hopes to resolve is the fact that the Knoxville Fire Department had not considered Reno a suspect, and in fact Assistant Chief Mark Wilbanks said he was surprised by DOJ’s announcement. The Bureau said it based its conclusion partially on an undercover recording of Reno speaking to a fire department investigator but refused to release the recording.

“Investigators for the Knoxville Fire Department determined that the fire began inside the building; no explanation has been given for how Reno gained entry,” Hay has written. “This journalist interviewed the original 911 caller who, unprompted, described the man who fled the scene in a red truck as ‘a white man with long hair.’ Reno was clean-cut.”

“Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi (PPTNM) may use federal Title X funds to rebuild in Knoxville,” she adds. “The Biden administration has routed Title X funding around the state of Tennessee and made grants directly to other regional Planned Parenthood organizations; these, in turn, plan to make sub-grants to PPTNM.”

Hay previously filed one FOIA request for the video in April 2023, then another in August for all records pertaining to the fire. The first was denied supposedly to protect Reno’s privacy, which is a curious request in light of the fact that the Bureau publicly accused him of the crime after he was already dead and could no longer defend himself. The FBI ostensibly granted the second request but claimed that compilation of the requested records could not be completed until April 2026.

Slow-walking FOIA requests with lengthy estimates for material-gathering is a common tactic by the federal government. Last year, ruling against the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) in an unrelated case, U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman declared that “Democracy dies behind closed doors,” and that while federal agencies do face legitimate logistical constraints in assembling and releasing large quantities of data with limited resources, that “does not dictate the bounds of an individual’s FOIA rights,” and requests must be met in a timely manner because “stale information is of little value.”

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