Posts Tagged ‘Associated Press’


Pittsburgh Catholic diocese sues feds for ‘patently uncooperative’ response to FOIA request

Several months after the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh filed a freedom of information request with the federal government to learn how mandatory contraceptive coverage became part of the new federal health-care plan, the government said it would need five years and $1.8 million dollars to meet the request.

Now the diocese is suing the government for being “patently uncooperative” and violating the Freedom of Information Act, which requires government officials provide public information quickly and at a reasonable cost, according to the  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Diocese attorney Paul “Mickey” Pohl filed the lawsuit July 1 claiming the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention intentionally created illegal barriers to bar the diocese from public information about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

“Just because it’s a politically sensitive issue, the people at HHS shouldn’t decide they’re above the law and try to stonewall the provision of material requested under the Freedom of Information Act,” Pohl told the Post-Gazette.

His lawsuit alleges that since he filed his FOI request in September, government officials have denied parts of his request and refused to meet with him personally to help him clarify or streamline it, according to the Associated Press. Even when officials allegedly lowered the charge to about $25,000, they limited the information they were willing to provide and said some of the information would still take three years to collect.

Pohl, who represents the Diocese in their challenge to the health-care plan, originally requested 11 items. According to the Post-Gazette, they include:

  • Communications in advance of the issuance of the rules and religious employer exemptions
  • Documents regarding women’s preventative health care
  • Documents regarding other exemptions or waivers from the act’s requirements
  • Documents regarding the one-year safe harbor from the act’s requirements
  • Information regarding the role of the Institute of Medicine — a nongovernmental group that helped develop the guidelines for preventive care that ultimately included all federally approved contraceptives

Pohl told the Post-Gazette the request aimed at revealing whether Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was heavily lobbied by representatives of pharmaceutical companies who hoped to benefit financially from the contraceptive coverage.

“We think there has been a wide variety of groups trying to influence the administration to keep the sterilization, contraception and abortion pill parts of the mandate, and we’re trying to find out what the communication has been back and forth to HHS, and the reason HHS is fighting religious organizations so hard not to change the preventative care mandate,” Pohl told the Post-Gazette. “We want to know who’s been lobbying the secretary of Health and Human Services to influence this decision.”

The 2010 federal health care overhaul takes full effect next year, and the government has yet to disclose whether the diocese will be exempt from providing employee insurance coverage for contraception, the AP said.

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.

FOI Daily Dose: FOIA fines prompt change in Michigan; Washington city council tries private email trick; More public records controversy in California

Hefty FOIA fines prompt change in Michigan

Hefty fines for public records requests in Michigan rally support for the state’s House Bill 4001 aimed at limiting costs to 10 cents per page and eliminating the charge for on-sight inspection, according to the Oakland Press.

Residents and reporters are worried the state’s current fees for obtaining free information discourage the public from requesting records.

In Oakland Township, where the current cost is 25 cents per page plus labor, resident Marc Edwards racked up a nearly $2,500 bill for two FOIA requests with township officials. The bulk of the cost came from the 8,918 pages he requested in print, according to the Oakland Press.

House Bill 4001 was introduced Jan. 9 by Rep. Mike Shirkey. Along with lowering costs for the public, it raises fees from $500 to $5,000 for government agencies that delay or deny records requests. Government agencies would be allowed a 10-day extension, and after that, the cost of the request would drop 20 cents per day, the Press said.

Washington city council members discuss official business in private emails

Members of the Bainbridge Island City Council in Washington were caught discussing city business using private email accounts last week, and when the city asked them to turn over the emails pertaining to official business, some refused, according to the Bainbridge Island Review.

Discussing official business on private email accounts keeps information out of public reach and violates the city’s Manuel of City Governance adopted in 2010 that says council members “shall cease utilizing any private, public or proprietary email service other than the city’s, for the sending or receiving of any such emails that meet the definition of public records,” according to the Review.

More public records controversy in California

Although Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed legislation loosening requirements for meeting open records requests on June 27, he remains committed to relieving the state of its financial burden for reimbursing local governments when they meet records requests, according to The Associated Press.

The same afternoon Brown signed the state budget, lawmakers proposed constitutional amendment SCA3 to save the state government millions of dollars a year by requiring local agencies to pay for fulfilling the records requests they receive. It’s currently pending before the Senate, and it needs two-thirds support from both houses to be placed on a statewide ballot next year, the AP said.

But while Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said the amendment is aimed at strengthening open-government laws and holding local governments accountable, the Oakland Tribune’s editorial board is skeptical it might go too far.

The Tribune fears the amendment requires local governments to comply with the exemption-ridden Public Records Act and Brown Act open-meeting law, giving both acts “greater legal weight.”

They also said the amendment allows the legislature and governor to change the laws and, hence, the constitution at any time without voter approval.

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.

FOI Daily Dose: Ohio newspapers restrictions on open government, AP president says DOJ violated its own rules

Ohio newspapers stand against restrictions on open government, records

The Ohio Newspapers Association (ONA) is standing against more than half a dozen bills pending in the legislature that place more restrictions on the state’s public records and open meetings laws, according to Gongwer News Service.

Two bills ONA is watching closely include House Bill 59, an amendment that allows local governments to discuss economic development deals in secret and Senate Bill 60, legislation that eliminates public access to concealed handgun permit records (see previous post).

Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio monitors the state’s sunshine laws, and she told Gongwer News Service she’s noticed increased efforts to limit access to government information across the board.

Dennis Hetzel, ONA executive director, told Gongwer there are other pending bills that provide hope for open government advocates, including Senate Bill 93 that limits reasons for executive session, House Bill 175 that creates a state government expenditure database and House Bill 189 that increases the transparency of Jobs Ohio.

AP president says DOJ subpoena without warning violated DOJ rules, compromised First Amendment freedoms

Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of The Associated Press, accused the Justice Department of violating its own rules when it secretly subpoenaed more than 20 AP phone lines in May. He also noted some sources have been reluctant to talk with reporters since the search for  fear that their anonymity will be compromised.

Pruitt addressed a luncheon of journalists and others June 19, telling them the AP was never warned about the search that monitored thousands of phone calls to and from its reporters even though the DOJ rules say the only reason for a delay in notification is if the party searched could compromise the investigation.

Pruitt said there’s little reason to believe this could justify not warning the AP because their phone records were in the hands of the phone company so there’s no way they could have tampered with them. The FBI had also already announced its leak investigation by the time the search began, so the leaker was already tipped off, Pruitt said.

Instead, he explained the only logical reason the DOJ did not notify the AP is to supersede the AP’s ability to contest the search or narrow its scope.

“The DOJ’s actions could not have been more tailor-made to comfort authoritarian regimes that want to suppress their own news media,” Pruitt said.

Beyond the DOJ’s own code of ethics, he said the search compromised the First Amendment freedom of the press and effectively suppressed the free speech of federal leakers. Since the search, he said reporters from several news organizations have told him their sources felt intimidated by the DOJ’s actions.

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.

FOI Daily Dose: Feds obtain broad phone records for Verizon customers

Think The Associated Press and Fox News were the only ones whose phone records are watched by federal officials?  Think again. If you have a Verizon phone, you can add your name to the list.

A top secret court order issued in April grants the National Security Agency (NSA) a three-month window to collect phone records for any and all of Verizon’s millions of customers, including those who aren’t suspected of wrongdoing.

The order, approved through a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) judge, expires July 19, but until then, it mandates that all calls are monitored on an “ongoing, daily basis,” according to the Guardian, which broke the story the evening of June 5.

A September 2012 Statistic Brain report shows that Verizon connects an average of 1 billion calls per day, and the government can monitor all calls within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries.

Although feds won’t be listening in on your conversations, the order allows them to see the numbers of both parties on a call, as well as the call location, duration and “unique identifiers,” the Guardian said. They can also track the time and duration of all calls you make.

Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald explains that this order shows for the first time that the Obama administration’s domestic surveillance rivals the Bush-era exploits into domestic telephone, Internet and email records authorized in 2001 to protect what the former administration called “national security interests” after the 9/11 terror attacks.

But Greenwald notes that the Obama administration’s Verizon surveillance is “extremely unusual” because FISA court orders typically monitor a “specific named target who is suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets.”

Even those who typically support the president took to Twitter last night when the report came out, including former Vice President Al Gore who called it “obscenely outrageous.”

The Guardian said so far the NSA, the White House, the Justice Department and Verizon have declined comment. It is unknown whether other cell-phone providers have similar orders, but in a news conference on June 6, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) confirmed Verizon’s order is a three month renewal of ongoing practice, the Huffington Post reports.

More than anything, Greenwald’s article emphasized the current administration’s “extreme interpretation of the law” to exploit American privacy without the American people even realizing it.

For watchdog journalists, it’s only the latest federal tug on our leash, reminding us the government still has its hold on private communications, and its grasp might be stronger than we imagine.

Greenwald points to “numerous cryptic public warnings” from U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Co.) who have said the administration’s domestic surveillance power is so broad the American public would be “stunned” to learn its scope.

The New York Times reported that the legality of this type of domestic surveillance falls under the “hotly debated” Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

Wyden and Udall disagree with the discrepancy in the way the Obama administration described Section 215 as a way to obtain a grand jury subpoena for business records in an ordinary criminal investigation and then secretly use the section to make it easier for the NSA to get a FISA court order to obtain any “business records” (from companies like Verizon) by proving that they were “relevant” to a national-security investigation.

The senators wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder complaining that this secret interpretation was misleading, saying: “There is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows.”

But in 2011, the Justice Department denied misleading the public about the Patriot Act, according to the New York Times.

The Times said it filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in 2011 for a report describing the government’s interpretation of its Patriot Act surveillance powers.

But Times reporters Charlie Savage and Edward Wyatt explain: “The Obama administration withheld the report, and a judge dismissed the case.”

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.

FOI Update: GOP-led committee votes to uproot Wisconsin investigative journalism center

Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee voted in the wee hours of June 5 to uproot the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ) from its small office on the University of Wisconsin campus and ban university employees from working for it, The Associated Press reports.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is an independent non-profit that trains students in the school of journalism to contribute to and conduct high-quality investigations, sometimes as a watchdog on government integrity.

The center’s executive director, Andy Hall, told City Pages the non-profit was “blindedsided” by the committee’s sudden decision to add the provision to the state budget and not sure whether it’s related to WCIJ’s legislative coverage, but “it’s certainly possible.”

“In the past, of course, some legislators and other public officials have been made uncomfortable by some of our reporting, but I don’t specifically know what might have triggered this action,” Hall told City Pages.

Republican Rep. John Nygren told the AP the center shouldn’t be using state facilities.

That afternoon, Gregory J. Downey, director of UW-Madison’s journalism school, published a response on the university’s website calling the decision a “direct assault on our academic freedom in research, teaching, and service — and on the Wisconsin Idea.”

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.

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.

FOI DAILY DOSE: Release of pricey Palin e-mails, oversight for Seattle schools

Two years later, Alaska to release 24,000 pages of Palin e-mails

It took more than two years, but the Associated Press, CNN, Andree McLeod of Anchorage and others will finally get the gubernatorial e-mails they wanted.

The requests from individuals and news outlets for Palin’s e-mails, made when she was running for vice president, will be honored by the state of Alaska soon.

The 24,000 pages are to be sent for copying this week and will then be mailed to the requesters.

But there’s a catch: 2,415 pages will be withheld due to exemptions from the state’s disclosure laws. And some of those that are released include an as-yet-unknown number of redactions.

The price for the long-overdue records release: $725.97 for copying fees, plus the cost of shipping about five boxes of the records at 55 pounds per box, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

The reasons for the two-year records delay, according to state officials, were that the state was unprepared for such a huge request for electronic data and that Palin’s use of a Yahoo account for business matters further complicated the process.

But it won’t just be the requesters who get to see the Palin e-mails. MSNBC.com, ProPublica and Mother Jones plan to publish the 24,000-plus pages in a searchable online archive.

Scandal sparks plans for Seattle school watchdog

There’s nothing like a scandal to drum up support for more official oversight.

A financial quagmire over a business development program resulted in the sacking of a superintendent and, now, a watchdog plan for Seattle Public Schools.

Seattle’s city council passed a measure Tuesday for the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission to create a district program for ethics and whistleblower protection.

The program will last until 2012, and hopefully beyond.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

FOI Fail of the Week: British gag order edition

Our pre-Memorial Day award for FOI Fail of the Week goes to the British court system’s injunction practices, which have been rocked this week by the revealing tweets of citizens.

Ryan Giggs, a soccer star, got a court injunction preventing media outlets from publishing the allegations he faces of having an affair with a reality television contestant.

His injunction is known as an “anonymized injunction,” where news outlets can publish information about him as long as his name is withheld.

The gag order didn’t keep Giggs’ identity a secret, however, as people posted his name and joked about his supposed indiscretions on Twitter.

The case has centered attention on “super-injunctions,” used in Britain to forbid journalists from both writing about something and also from writing about their inability to write in the first place. (Go back and read that again if you need.)

When Giggs’ attorneys insisted Twitter reveal the people behind the Internet campaign against the star, users spread the news even further.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt promised he would form a committee to review the rules for gagging orders and to assess potential alterations.

As for the odds of the Twitter users facing legal attacks for ignoring the injunction – well, they’re pretty slim.

With 75,000 people naming Giggs, British lawmaker John Hemming told Parliament that “it is obviously impracticable to imprison them all,” according to an Associated Press story.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

FOI DAILY DOSE: AP pushes for bin Laden photos, docs raise questions about D.C. cops, Elena Kagan

AP seeks bin Laden photos

Despite President Obama’s decision not to release post-mortem photos of Osama bin Laden, The Associated Press won’t give up the fight.

The Obama administration refused AP’s call for an expedited review of its FOIA request, so AP is appealing to the Department of Defense.

But AP isn’t just after the photos. It also wants other information about the bin Laden operation, including copies of the DNA tests proving that the man killed was bin Laden, contingency plans, and other video and photographs of the mission.

Police Escort Records

While it may be having trouble obtaining the bin Laden documents, another AP FOIA request revealed records from the Washington, D.C. police that show it’s not just top federal officials who receive law enforcement escorts.

Charlie Sheen, Bill Gates and singer Taylor Swift are among those who have received escorts that are supposed to be reserved for foreign dignitaries and major government officials.

The issue of celebrity escorts was thrown into the spotlight after Charlie Sheen publicized his April 19 escort by tweeting about the service. In one tweet posted with a photo via his yfrog webpage, Sheen wrote: “in car with Police escort in front and rear! driving like someone’s about to deliver a baby! Cop car lights #Spinning!”

While the services are paid for – police escorts run a rate of $55.71 per hour – they could go against protocol when used for professional athletes or other celebrities.

Police escorts are also allowed if there is concern for public safety or crowd control, which may make some celebrity escorts OK, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said in an interview with AP. Past services for entertainers or other celebrities will be evaluated based on the Charlie Sheen case.

Justice Kagan and Health Care Law

The AP isn’t the only organization making headlines with its FOIA requests.

A FOIA lawsuit filed in February by Judicial Watch and the Media Research Center may revive concerns about whether Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan should be involved in future cases involving the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed in 2010.

Documents provided due to the lawsuit show Kagan helped develop a legal defense for the law as solicitor general before she was appointed to the Supreme Court, according to an article from The Daily Caller.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

 

FOI Links: Dept. of Homeland Security has political advisers scrutinize requests

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