About 150 people attended the fourth annual FOIAfest March 12 at Loyola University Chicago. Loyola, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and the Chicago Headline Club were the sponsors. Below is a smattering of comments provided by Chicago Headline Club member Susan Stevens from the dozen break-out sessions.
Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association, gave the keynote address.
Among Shaw’s observations: FOIAs are not just for journalists but also for citizens who are keeping watch. Government is a service – not a business. The real problem with FOIA lawsuits is public officials fight us with our – taxpayer – own money. Biggest challenge to democracy is a disengaged citizenry.
Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association, delivers FOIAFest keynote address.
Freelancer Brandon Smith: Government units should fund FOIA offices, hold them to the law. He won the release of the Lacquan MacDonald video that showed the teen shot 16 times while jogging AWAY from police. (He will speak April 2 at the Society of Professional Journalists’ Region 4/5 Spring Conference in Cincinnati.)
Invisible Institute’s Jamie Kalven: There’s a huge shadow population of people abused by police who don’t complain.
Matt Topic, Jamie Kalven, Brandon Smith and Mick Dumke discuss how independent journalists and attorneys uncovered alleged Chicago police misconduct through FOIA.
Kalven: Just make this stuff public without FOIA requests.
Attorney Matt Topic: When do you decide to sue? When you know “diligently is a lie.” Governments don’t have a lot of incentive to obey FOIA. Go to the Illinois Attorney General immediately after a deadline is missed.
Sun Times’ Mick Dumke moderated that session.
Sun-Times’ Frank Main: When you ask cops for something you are really dealing with the city Law Department or the mayor’s office.
Tribune’s David Heinzmann: It’s easier to go to sources for documents rather than FOIAing. Find some way to meet cops in another environment, build friendships and therefore sources.
Heinzmann: You often get in response to a FOIA, “Your request was overly burdensome.” That’s the latest police response. “They don’t know their own laws.” Example: City says a maximum of 1,000 emails can be FOIAed; police say 500.
Chip Mitchell, David Heinzmann and Frank Main discuss using FOIA to hold police accountable. Alden Loury is the moderator.
Main: Be very specific in requests, such as “police” and “shot” and “south side.”
Main: Public Access Counselor has made it easier. “We appeal almost everything now. I don’t think I’ve lost a case with them.”
Kalven: PAC staff is overburdened.
Heinzmann: Court records are not a FOIA issue. Those records are really critical in covering cops. Eg. Lawsuits: Attorneys might give you the depositions by pox officers.
Main: Chief judge’s office is immune from FOIA, but amenable to providing information.
WBEZ’s Chip Mitchell: The more you know and the more they know you know …
Main: City of Chicago data portal valuable.
Main: Dash cam and body cam videos are supposed to be handed over to the public.
Alden Loury of BGA moderator
Matt Topic and Bob Herguth talk about the nuts and bolts of crafting a public records request.
John Chase, John O’Connor and Tim Novak tell how to get access to politicians’ private emails.
You might get lucky. Keep your requests specific. Focus on an agency, not an individual employee. Tribune is trying to establish in court that the mayor’s office is an agency, said reporter John Yates. If you ask for too much, the agency may say it’s too burdensome to comply. If necessary, ask for info in bits and pieces over time. Tim Novak from the Sun-Times says he starts every investigation with a FOIA request. John O’Connor from the AP says some of his best scoops come from following up someone else’s story a year or two later,
If you have a good FOIA case, remember government body pays legal fees if they lose. Some attorneys will take case pro bono.
A sign that something needs to be investigated? If CPD dismisses as “gang related.” Think Hadiya Pendleton and Tyshawn Lee.