Archive for the ‘FOI audits’ Category


14 Death Cab for Cutie Lyrics that Are Actually About FOI

Illustration by Michael Koretzky, SPJ Region 3 Director

In these dark times—coming out of an anti-access administration and right into a an anti-press administration—we journalists may benefit from brazenly turning our attention to less stark information.

This is one of those times.

Oregonian journo Bethany Barnes argues a 2015 indie-favorite album is about public records requests and not about love.

Maybe she’s right or maybe she’s alternatively factualizing to make her case in a post-truth sense.

I think it’s best to let you decide..

Death Cab For Cutie’s Latest Album is About Love—of FOIA

By Bethany Barnes

Death Cab For Cutie is an indie rock band known for songs that chronicle love stories fueled by cynicism and passion. So it was only a matter of time before they released an album about records requests.

I recently got around to listening to Death Cab’s latest album and I think there’s a case to be made that it’s a soulful tribute to transparency.

For starters, it’s called Kintsugi. Kintsugi, as I learned from a quick Google search, is a Japanese pottery technique used to make new art by fusing together broken pieces. Conceptually, Kintsugi is about embracing something broken to find beauty. Anyone who has filed a records request can consider themselves a practitioner of the same art form.

We know the Freedom of Information Act is both beautiful and broken. Don’t take my word for it, just read this take from the government on the matter: “FOIA Is Broken: A Report

Not that I need to convince this audience, but for proof of what’s heart-stopping about public records, consider how the Fort Worth Star-Telegram won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The paper’s investigation exposed how a helicopter design flaw killed 250 US servicemen.

A gem from the story behind that story, as told by Roy J. Harris Jr. in his excellent book
Pulitzer’s Gold”:

“Can you tell me about these accidents?” Thompson asked.

“No I can’t,” White responded.

“Well, what if I sent a FOIA?” the reporter followed up.

White hesitated.

“I’ve been waiting years for somebody to ask that.”

That reporting saved lives. The deadly flaw wasn’t unknown; it was just that nobody fixed it until the press got involved. Military records showed that.

Emotional stuff, public records. That’s why it makes perfect sense that Death Cab, once described as “one guitar and a whole lot of complaining,” would inevitably make an entire album’s subject freedom of information.

Let’s look at the lyrical evidence:

“I don’t know why/I don’t know why/I return to the scenes of these crimes” — Song: “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive”

You can’t stop thinking about that police brief you read the other day. You’ve got a hunch, so you file a request for the police reports.

“You’re always out of reach when I’m in pursuit/Long winded then suddenly mute”  — Song: “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life”

Clearly an ode to a records officer.

“And I’ve got nowhere to go except further below/So I keep digging/And it gets darker everyday/But I see no other way than just committing.” — Song: “Everything’s A Ceiling”

The point in the investigation when you start muttering to yourself, “Follow the money!”

“Zeros and ones, patterns appear/They’ll prove to all that we were here/For if there is no document/We cannot build our monument” — Song: “Binary Sea”

Obviously a conversation about why you need to talk to the IT person and not the spokesperson about exporting the database in a machine-readable format.

“And so I wait but I never seem to learn/How to capture your diminishing returns” — Song: “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life”

When the redactions get heavier with each subsequent request.

“You’ll never have to hear the word “no”/If you keep all your friends on the payroll/The non-disclosure pages signed/Your secret’s safe between those lines” — Song: “Good Help (Is So Hard To Find)”

When the agency has denied your records request and you must explain why the public interest demands disclosure.

“I don’t know why, I don’t know why/I don’t know what I expect to find/Where all the news is second hand/And everything just goes on as planned” — Song: “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive”

When the agency’s spokesperson doesn’t understand why you won’t just say which exact record you want and you sigh and say, “But I haven’t seen the records because you won’t let me see them. I can’t ask for something if I don’t know it exists. They are your records and I don’t know how you keep them. That’s why I’m asking.”

“Darling, don’t you understand/That there are no winners/Or medals hung from silken strands/To greet you at the finish/As we’re dissolving into the sea/I can only take what I can carry/As the counsel’s combing through our debris/For the treasures we never buried” — Song: “Hold No Guns”

When the spokesperson is breaking the bad news to officials that the agency’s general counsel is reviewing your records request and will soon produce damning documents.

“And there’s a dumpster in the driveway/Of all the plans that came undone” — Song: “Black Sun”

Corrupt officials have heard about your request and they’re not taking it well.

“There’s a long, slow fade/To a darkened stage/And I hear you say/’Only a fool gives it away’ — Song: “Good Help (Is So Hard To Find)”

The agency has asserted that it is allowed to charge “reasonable fees.” The fees are not reasonable.

“Seems you finally found, finally found El Dorado/So why does it feel underwhelming, barely real?” — Song: “El Dorado”

El Dorado is a pet name for The Documents. Clearly.

“And it’s such a hard thing to do/So take all you can” — Song: “Ingene”

When you’ve negotiated to inspect the records in person so must take as many photos of them with your phone as you can because this might be your only chance.

“No room in frame/For two” — Song: “No Room in Frame”

You have the records, you’ve found proof of wrongdoing, you’ve written the story—your editor urges you to focus. It is time to cut out some hard-won details. Can’t bog down the narrative.

“So lean in close or lend an ear/There’s something brilliant bound to happen here” — Song: “Binary Sea”

The investigation is done. It’s on today’s front page. You’re at your desk and the phone rings. On the line is someone who just read your story. She’s calling to tell you you can get even more records.

Sure, maybe the album is about a romance. But I like to think Ben Gibbard, Death Cab’s frontman, is telling us about the power and poetry found in the pursuit of public records.  After all, the band’s most famous single is “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.”

Isn’t that what every journalist must do to shed light?


Bethany Barnes is a journalist at The Oregonian. Before taking her records requests to Portland, she spent three years in Las Vegas (Also the subject of a Death Cab song. See “Little Bribes”) and in 2016 was named Nevada’s Outstanding Journalist.

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How to FOIA: Environmental Protection Agency

When an environmental story breaks, there’s one agency that always seems to get called for comment: the Environmental Protection Agency. “Environment” is in the name, after all. EPA handles between 9,000 and 12,000 Freedom of information requests each year, according to FOIA.gov, ranking it 15th among all government departments and federal agencies in amount of records requests. Their track record for processing and granting requests, when compared to other departments, isn’t half bad. It’s also not good. Out of over 12,600 total active FOIA requests in FY 2014, the EPA processed 10,130; or 80%. Processed doesn’t mean granted, however, and by the end of the calendar year, over 2,500 requests were still awaiting a decision.

Those aren’t the odds a reporter wants, but better than the 103,480 records sitting in backlog at the Department of Homeland Security or the 3,373-day-old request awaiting a decision at the Department of Defense.

http://www.foia.gov/data.html

http://www.foia.gov/data.html

 

Explore more FOIA stats here.

How does FOIA work at the EPA?

The EPA presumes government openness, its website claims, releasing national information and making discretionary decisions regarding state, private and possibly exempt requests. Filing a FOIA request is “neither complicated nor time-consuming,” the resource page reads. Experienced reporters would tell you it’s a false claim. Even though the agency promotes government transparency and provides several online resources, it remains one of the most difficult to contact or obtain information from, according to Christy George, former president of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Like with other departments, FOIA requests must be made in writing, either through snail mail or FOIAonline. The agency has twenty days to respond, but the clock starts ticking only after the specific information to be requested has been identified and any fees paid. Journalists may be charged $0.15 per page for photocopying after the first 100 pages. The 20-day response period can be extended by fee waiver proceedings, appeals processes to the National FOIA Officer, or with “large-scale” projects that require information from multiple agencies.

Nine exemptions may exclude your information of interest from being released by any department.

  1. Classified national defense and foreign relations information.
  2. Internal agency rules and practices.
  3. Information that is prohibited from disclosure by another federal law.
  4. Trade secrets and other confidential business information.
  5. Inter-agency or intra-agency communications that are protected by legal privileges.
  6. Information involving matters of personal privacy (protected under the Privacy Act or containing sensitive personally identifiable information).
  7. Information compiled for law enforcement purposes, to the extent that the production of those records:
    1. Could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.
    2. Would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication.
    3. Could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
    4. Could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source.
    5. Would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement, investigations or prosecutions, or would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions.
    6. Could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual.
  8. Information relating to the supervision of financial institutions.
  9. Geological information on wells.

Number nine seems problematic, as many stories analyzing oil wells and fracking would need to rely on this information. But a larger challenge, says journalist Michael Corey from the Center of Investigative Reporting, is getting through the “stone wall” of trade secrets and noncompliance of large industrial companies. Companies the EPA has the power to regulate, but not the power to expose.

Contacting the EPA

EPA is divided into ten regions, each with its own Regional Freedom of Information Officer. Contact information is listed on the EPA’s official website along with a map in case you don’t know your particular region’s number or officer.

Requests can also be made through EPA headquarters, and nearly 2,000 records are every year. Surprisingly, Regions 5 (IL, IN, MI, MN, OH, WI) and 2 (NJ, NY, PR, VI) are just as busy as headquarters, if not more so, but grant a higher percentage of requests per year. The general consensus among environmental reporters, says Inside Climate News reporter Lisa Song, is that regional staff are more helpful than EPA headquarters, which communicate almost completely by email and consistently shuttle interviews through public information officers rather than expert scientists and officials.

EPA FOIA requests by region, data from http://www.foia.gov/data.html.

EPA FOIA requests by region, data from http://www.foia.gov/data.html.

Find your region and contact office here.

Find the agency organization chart here.

What is the EPA doing to improve FOI?

Under new administrator Gina McCarthy, EPA is releasing an increasing amount of data online (see some cool resources below). According to the 2015 Chief FOIA Officer’s Report to the US Justice Department (required of all agencies), embracing digital information has led to the release of over 300,000 online records since 2012. National topics include: climate change,  lead, asbestos, and a Reduce, Reuse, Recycle initiative. EPA reported last year that only 67 FOIA requests were denied and the time for expedited processing was reduced to 6.8 days.

However, the digital side also has its pitfalls. Question 16 of the report asks, “Do your agency’s FOIA professionals use e-mail or other electronic means to communicate with requesters whenever feasible?” Yes, says the EPA; which for journalists, also means that mere email responses from public information staff often take the place of face-to-face interviews with knowledgeable scientists or officials.

Read the entire report here.

Resources

My Environment is very neat and personalized link to track air and water quality, pollution levels, energy use, and health information for a given state, city, or zip code. The app also offers comparisons to previous years and compiles the data into graphical form. The My Maps extension creates downloadable interactive maps. If you have time, be sure to click on the plus signs and “Learn more” links to find deeper information. For example, this map below displays the water quality in my hometown, and clicking on the little blue symbol reveals the name of the company responsible for the toxic releases: JCI Jones Chemicals (no relation to yours truly). The raw data is also available for download.

Merrimack NH water data from EPA MyMaps app.

Merrimack NH water data from EPA MyMaps app.

National Service Center for Environmental Publications (NSCEP). This online collection includes factsheets, research findings, and policy guidelines dating back to 1976. Documents can be downloaded for free or paper copies can be ordered if in stock and available. However only five documents can be ordered within a two-week time frame and fees might apply for requesting out-of-stock documents from the National Technical Information Service.

The Environmental Database Gateway. A metadata collection of information from geospatial and nongeospatial sources, linked to an information resource and web-based map viewer. Data can be found via a simple or advanced search and the “reuse” capability means  users can output and embed search content.

Developer CentralThis website features over forty pages of apps created by third-party web developers based on EPA data. Top apps include “Right to Know” and “EPA UV index.” Most apps include source codes, and the original datasets can be found on the “Data Showcase.”

Environmental Protection Agency Website. Explore the agency’s official site to find a list of their associated research facilities, laws and executive orders, and financial and budget information and history.

Report

Now that you have these resources, how will you use them in your next story? Tweet @amayrianne with your ideas.

Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow her blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley at amayrianne@spj.org or tweet @amayrianne.

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Must read FOI stories – 6/13/14

Every week I’ll be doing a round up of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me.

  • A Circuit Court Judge will decide on whether text messages exchanged between government officials need to be released under FOIA in a lawsuit filed by PETA. The first defense the city of Norfolk, Virginia, offered was that its public employees don’t save their messages, then it said there was no way of retrieving them. Maybe their next excuse will be, “The dog ate ’em.”
  • FOI advocacy groups want to close loop holes in FOIA regulations. Advocates say “agencies lack penalties for withholding information, overuse exemptions provided within FOIA and deal inconsistently and unfairly toward requesters.”
  • After 10,000 requests, MuckRock files FOIA lawsuit against the CIA. You can read all about in their editorial, “Why we’re suing the CIA.”
  • FOIA request filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation reveals FBI’s Next Generation Identification facial recognition program will consist of a database of more than 52 million pictures. FBI Director says he doesn’t think the agency will spy on Americans with it. (Apparently he missed the memo from the NSA.)

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

 

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FOI Update: AP FOIA request? That’ll be $1 million, please.

When The Associated Press asked the Labor Department for secret email addresses of appointed administration employees, the department initially told them it would cost $1 million.

The AP learned that government officials were conducting business via private or “alternative” email addresses last year from an Environmental Protection Agency administrator, according to The Atlantic Wire.

In a press briefing on June 4, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the practice helped officials prevent their inboxes from overflowing with unwanted messages. He assured journalists and citizens there was nothing lurking behind the private emails they couldn’t access by submitting a FOIA request.

“Let’s be clear — this is a practice consistent with prior administrations of both parties, and, as the story itself made clear, any FOIA request or congressional inquiry includes a search in all of the email accounts used by any political appointee,” Carney said.

But the AP submitted requests to several government agencies for the email addresses about three months ago, and so far, responses have been spotty.

Ten agencies say they’re still processing requests, and two agencies, the Health and Human Services Department and the Interior Department, have been reluctant to release certain employee’s email addresses or (unsuccessfully) requested that the AP keep those addresses quiet.

But the strangest (and most alarming) response came from the Labor Department, which told the AP that their FOIA request would cost more than $1.03 million to process, and even if the AP paid, they said finding the emails would still take 14 weeks.

According to the AP: “(The department) said it needed to pull 2,236 computer backup tapes from its archives and pay 50 people to pore over old records. Those costs included three weeks to identify tapes and ship them to a vendor, and pay each person $2,500 for nearly a month’s work.”

Of course, the department later admitted that asking for that much money is against its own FOIA rules (the same rules it cited asking AP for the money in the first place), and it provided the email addresses.

According to FOIA.gov, there is no initial fee required to submit a FOIA request, but the agency can charge for the time it takes to search for records and duplicate them, typically after the first two hours of search time or the first 100 pages of duplication.

FOIA.gov says:

“You may always include in your request letter a specific statement limiting the amount that you are willing to pay in fees. If an agency estimates that the total fees for processing your request will exceed $25, it will notify you in writing of the estimate and offer you an opportunity to narrow your request in order to reduce the fees.”

Luckily, the AP enforced their rights instead of narrowing their request.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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FOI Update: OpenSecrets.org unveils IRS data on ‘dark money’ non-profits

OpenSecrets.org, run by the Center for Responsive Politics, unveiled the largest set of public IRS data on politically active non-profits June 4 to help track down donors of “dark money” that has skyrocketed to hundreds of millions of dollars during the past three elections.

“Dark money” refers to money given to non-profit groups from undisclosed people, unions and corporations. Since non-profit organizations do not legally have to name their donors, OpenSecrets says politically active spenders who want to “game the IRS” only have to “create a 501(c)(4) tax exempt group and spend away.”  Then they can “exploit definitions and disarray” before relaxing, regrouping and procreating.

Using this method, political spenders have turned some non-profits into top-secret money sources funneling “hundreds of millions of dollars into the electoral system while dodging the disclosure requirements that apply to almost all other organizations that support or oppose political candidates,” according to OpenSecrets.

Although the IRS is supposed to curb the political influence of these non-profits, OpenSecrets says their failure to do so has resulted in non-profit spending during federal elections increasing from $5.2 billion to $300 billion in the past six years alone. They say increased spending primarily funds direct appeals to vote for or against particular candidates.

The Center for Responsive Politics has been collecting and processing this data on politically active non-profits for the past year and a half.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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Obama Administration doesn’t fare well in FOIA response test

IRE shares a report from Bloomberg News on how well the Obama Administration has done on the president’s promise for more transparency.

The final grade is “needs improvement.”

To test how responsive the government has been to records requests, Bloomberg reporters submitted FOIA requests to 57 agencies — from the State Department to NASA — asking for the 2011 travel records of top employees.

Nineteen of 20 cabinet-level agencies did not respond within the 20 days required under the federal Freedom of Information Act. Half the agencies produced the data well past the statutory deadlines. The other half have not responded.

As most open-government advocates know, FOIA is not the best tool for getting information out of government in a timely manner. But with Obama’s promise of openness, and his reversing the Ashcroft doctrine of looking for any grounds to deny a request, we were hoping for some improvement.

What has your experience been? And do you find states do a better job than the federal government in releasing public information?

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Nominate worst agency for new Black Hole Award! (due Feb. 28)

The Society of Professional Journalists is soliciting nominations for a new award this year, the Black Hole Award, which will be awarded during national Sunshine Week in March. Nominations are due Feb. 28!

The Black Hole serves as the counterpoint to the SPJ  Sunshine Award, highlighting a particularly heinous violation of the public’s right to know. By exposing the bad actors, we hope to educate members of the public to their rights and call attention to those who would interfere with the people’s right to acquire government information so that they may hold their elected officials accountable and enhance self-governance.

(Note that this new nationally focused effort was inspired by the Utah Headliners, SPJ’s state chapter, which has been giving out its own state Black Hole Award for quite some time.)

Here are the conditions nomination should meet:

1. Violation, in spirit or letter, of any federal or state open-government law. This would mean either a clear violation of the statute governing access to public records or public meetings, or using an ambiguity or loophole in the law to avoid having to comply with the law. For example, conducting multiple meetings with small groups that do not constitute a quorum, e-mail discussions outside the public view, or charging unreasonable amounts to copy documents.

2. Egregiousness. In order to maintain the effectiveness of the Black Hole award, it should not be given for just any openness violation. There needs to be a demonstration that this was not an isolated incident or done in relative ignorance. Recipients should know they are trampling on the public’s right, placing personal or political interests ahead of the public good or endangering public welfare. Examples might include an agency or official who attempted to keep information secret to avoid embarrassment or hide misdeeds.

3. Impact. The case should be one that affects the public rather than an individual. We want to avoid using the award to settle vendettas against recalcitrant bureaucrats. Essentially we want to see a case where their withholding the information hurt the general public rather than an individual, or its release would further public welfare.

The SPJ Freedom of Information Committee is doing this with a really tight deadline this year, hoping we can announce the “winner” during Sunshine Week. We would appreciate it you would send us information about any “outstanding” candidates you are aware of.

Deadline for nominations is Monday, Feb. 28. If possible, nominations should include, where possible, supporting documentation to allow SPJ to determine if the criteria have been met. The documentation can include any of the following, although the more documentation the better:

• News coverage of the violation.

• Public records chronicling the dispute.

• Legal papers if there was a lawsuit or other legal action involved in the matter.

• Any expert opinion from an attorney, official or open-government expert that the violation occurred.

• Contact information for the parties involved to allow the committee to obtain more information if needed, including from the government official.

Please email nominations to SPJ FOI Committee member Mike Farrell, farrell@uky.edu,

UPDATE [2/23/11]: This post was corrected to reflect that the SPJ Sunshine Award is not given out during national Sunshine Week. The due date for that award is March 18. It will be presented at an awards banquet at the Excellence in Journalism 2011 conference.

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Leaders under the microscope and a call for on-the-job FOI stories

When my former SPJ campus chapter conducted an FOI audit two years ago, we asked for the contracts of some head honchos at the University of Florida. You’re looking at superstars like basketball coach Billy Donovan and beloved football coach Urban Meyer. We also went after UF President Bernie Machen’s contract and UF Athletic Director Jeremy Foley’s.

I wish I still had the documents with me, because the perks and the pay listed made our heads spin, but we supposed the cushy contracts weren’t too surprising.

Conducting the mini-audit didn’t prove to be the challenge we were looking for, thanks in part to the strength of Florida’s Sunshine Law. The University of Florida willingly handed over the contracts in a timely fashion. There was no fuss, and we ran out of time to make a worthy news story out of the findings.

[Has your chapter or news organization conducted an FOI audit that proved to be difficult, and do you have tips for others who would like to do their own audit? Have you revealed pertinent information about community leaders that the public had a right to know? If so, please share in the comments.]

We had hoped to some day make public information requests for something better, something harder to grasp. We were happy to know that UF just handed over the contracts without complaint, but we wanted to find those documents that would produce a front-page story. Perhaps it was unfair to want to go for the university “jugular,” but we wanted to put UF through the ultimate FOI test.

It was definitely a relief being in Florida, which is a leader in FOI openness. But it’s still a shame that some agencies around the nation can’t catch up to 2010.

In recent news, the South Carolina Press Association has made numerous requests to law enforcement agencies that have been denied or altered. For example, a city council member’s name was redacted from a police report, and a Columbia police chief refused to release car collision records that involved the newly elected mayor, according to a column in the Aiken Standard.

According to Jay Bender, an attorney who represents the S.C. Press Association and teaches at the University of South Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communications, there is an attitude that has existed in South Carolina since the plantation days, where a small group in power “made decisions and told the rest of the population that the right decision had been made.”

This backwards way of thinking is the reason why journalists still need to pool their resources and FOI knowledge to keep community leaders in check. I sat in an interview once and told a Florida newspaper that I really liked the fact they had a Watchdog section. The paper’s representative admitted that they rarely updated the section nowadays and that it isn’t quite what they wanted it to be.

Because news organizations have a lack of manpower and/or funding to make important record requests, they are letting leaders run amuck. And when leaders are running amuck, then readers are wondering why local journalists aren’t blowing the whistle.

We’re a bunch of FOI-loving people, so let’s get some story-sharing going. We’d love to hear from you.

April Dudash is the summer 2010 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and does the bidding of SPJ Headquarters. She graduated from the University of Florida in May and has been an SPJ member since 2006.

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