Posts Tagged ‘public records’


Judging the Freedom of Information Act in environmental court

One misstep, one decision, one instant can unleash consequences that last a lifetime. Consider April 20, 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion created an environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, the fallout from which is still making news. While the first reports were made from the coast, the story has now moved into the courtroom.

Headlines scream breaking environmental news when an oil tanker or truck has a major spill, when a factory is found to be releasing toxic chemicals, or when a wildlife trafficker is caught and arrested (remember the man who tried to smuggle parrots in water bottles?) But what happens after the fact is sometimes overlooked. The court cases, the cash settlements, and the criminal punishments are as interesting as the original stories, and the Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) of the Department of Justice makes reporting on them possible.

ENRD handles cases dealing with civil and criminal statutes related to the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Superfund, and other lesser known environmental laws. It also handles conflicts over Native American rights and eminent domain actions to obtain private land for federal ownership. The Division is split into several categories, including Prevention and Cleanup of Pollution, Environmental Challenges to Federal Programs and Activities, Stewardship of Public Lands and Natural Resources, Property Acquisition for Federal Needs, Wildlife Protection, Indian Rights and Claims, and Appellate and Policy Work. The department is split into ten geographic sections nationwide, and is currently managing 7,000 active cases in state and territorial courts.

court-quote

I personally love looking into court proceedings and digging into legal issues. But there are a few reasons why it’s not attractive to everyone. For one, it takes an incredible amount of patience. The processing time between an original formal complaint and the final decision (then appeals, sentencing or settlement, etc) is months at best, never-ending at worst. During an ongoing case, lawyers, judges, and witnesses fall silent. And the best cases involving big-name companies will likely be settled in private behind closed doors, where confidentiality agreements and sealed documents are no match for FOIA. Of the nine FOIA exemptions, at least five can be used to block a  request for information that might come out during a court proceeding: including company trade secrets, witness medical records, law enforcement information, and internal agency personnel rules and practices. Finally, few people enjoy reading through the hundreds of pages of legal jargon that may accompany a case file.

One way to skirt this is to visit ENRD’s online press room, where releases include name of offender, prosecuting agency, details of the crime, and final decision and sentencing. In the last month, ENRD has published the outcomes of BP civil claim settlements, as well as environmental crimes committed by a Norwegian shipping company and an order to reduce emissions at a New Mexico power plant.

However, the press releases alone don’t give journalists a chance to dig deeper. It’s better to get your hands on court documents and sometimes, this can even be done without using FOIA. The Department of Justice puts out documents called “proactive disclosures” under subsection (a) 2 of FOIA, which are posted online automatically without any request from the public, and listed in the FOIA library. This includes final opinions, agency policy statements, FOIA request records, and certain administration staff manuals. Proposed consent decrees awaiting public comment are also available through the site and notices published in the Federal Register. Eleven cases are currently open for public comment, including U.S. v. District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority and U.S. v. Alabama Power Co. Frequently requested records, final opinions and orders, and yearly summaries of litigation accomplishments dating back from 2004, can be found on the Selected Publications site (although no opinions are currently listed).  However, that’s not to say all information is readily available.

FOIA @ ENRD

If you do need to file a FOIA request with ENRD, what can you expect? The Justice department handles upward of 60,000 requests per year, but only 70 to 80 of those fall under the Environmental and Natural Resources category. The small number of requests means processing time is slightly quicker than the average for DOJ requests; about 30 days for simple requests, a year for complex, and 10 days for expedited requests. Only 6 ENRD requests were pending at the end of 2014, despite the division having only two full-time FOIA employees.

court-foia

ENRD has traditionally granted 30% of FOIA requests in full, and given partial grants in another 30%; consistent with the DOJ response overall. Only a small portion (generally less than 5 cases) are denied based on exemptions, while most are denied listing the reason as “no records.” Denials made last year were based on exemption 3, citing 5 U.S.C. § 574 and 28 U.S.C. § 651, and withholding information about dispute resolution communications and confidential mediation documents.

To file an ENRD open records request, contact Sarah Lu, FOIARouting.enrd@usdoj.gov.

Decreasing Wildlife Trafficking, Increasing Web Traffic

In the past few years, a joint DOJ task force has been focusing on wildlife trafficking cases, and publishing summaries of the cases in a new online database. I find this particularly interesting, not only because some of these stories can involve off-beat characters (i.e. water-bottle bird man), but because illegal ivory/rhino horn/shark fin trading are big problems in developing countries. And it’s not easy to get a look into the black market. More info about each case can be found in the FOIA library or by a records request, including a case caption or name, civil action number, judicial district, and date or year of filing.

WILDLIFE TRAFFICKING PROSECUTIONS
BLACK MARKET TRADE IN RHINOCEROS HORN ILLEGALLY IMPORTED PROTECTED BLACK CORAL
ILLEGAL IMPORTATION OF SOUTH AFRICAN LEOPARD HIDES AND SKULLS AFRICAN ELEPHANT IVORY SMUGGLING
ILLEGAL IMPORTATION OF ENDANGERED SPECIES NARWWHAL TUSKS AND TEETH
SAFEGUARDING PROTECTED SPECIES

Final note: In addition to the DOJ, there are several other sites that keep searchable court records, although access might require a paid subscription. A few of the most frequently used sites are:.

  • Public Access to Electronic Court Records (PACER) 
    • PACER is a national database for federal cases from U.S. district, appellate, and bankruptcy courts. You can search by party involved, by court locale, or with the case locator tool. Documents are available immediately after being electronically filed. PACER requires its members to register for an account, and may charge up to $3.00 for a document. The downsides are that some personal identification information, like name and address, are removed before the record becomes public, and that there are no pre-2004 criminal case documents.
  • Lexis Nexis
    • Lexis Nexis is another pay-to-use service, but searches also include documents such as newspaper articles and company information related to a specific query. There is a professionals option, which contains documents, dockets, and litigation histories, but users must have a subscription to access. On the other hand, there is Lexis Nexis Academic, which is free, and can search cases by specific citation or parties involved. I’ve usually found this strategy to be hit-or-miss when it comes to how much information is provided, but on the plus side, it’s free.
  • Free Law Online
    • This is an incredibly comprehensive and helpful site put out by the Gallagher Law Library at the University of Washington. It contains a list of databases including laws, bills, court opinions on the federal and state levels (not just Washington state); there are links for each provided by the National Center for State Courts and American Libraries Association. The site also gives suggestions for online law reporters and digests, and publishes a legal research guide for non-lawyers.

How would you judge your Department of Justice or court stories experience? Share your thoughts by contacting amayrianne@gmail.com or tweeting @amayrianne.

Know your hometown: Small stories make the biggest difference.

The majority of my posts this summer will focus on federal environmental agencies, laws and policies. However, for most journalists, we are far more likely to report local news: the pollution-producing factory that came to town, the sudden increase in bacteria in a nearby lake, or the decrease in funding for science programs at the city’s middle school.

The stories that hit us and our audience the hardest. The ones we remember.

I grew up in Merrimack, a moderately sized suburb in southern New Hampshire known for moose, maple syrup, and New England’s Anhueser-Busch brewery. I remember the first environmental story I heard about my hometown, even though it occurred more than a decade ago, when I was 12 and more concerned with reading Tiger Beat than the newspaper. As I think about the story now, I wonder how I would go about reporting it, now knowing the resources and information available.

Merrimack, NH

Merrimack, NH

The Scoop

In March 2004, a beaver dam on private land was mysteriously demolished. Within a week, four other dams, these on town-owned conservation land, were also destroyed.  The Merrimack police partnered with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department to locate the suspect responsible for destroying the dams, a crime that carried a fine of $5,000. As a result of the lost dams, beavers abandoned the wetland area, the water level sank by four feet, and fish and bird populations were threatened. Environmental officials predicted it would take two years for the ecosystem to recover.

Read the original full story from the NH Business Review here.

While it’s not the hard-hitting news breakthrough that would shock a nation, my town reacted. I remember residents who lived near wetlands forming a makeshift neighborhood watch committee to prevent further damage to dams. Others got to work patching the dams to reverse the damage. School kids adopted the beaver as their favorite animal. People suddenly cared. The community came together and created an online forum (high-tech in those days!) to share updates until the suspect turned himself in.

American Beaver by blog.nwf.org

American Beaver by blog.nwf.org

Reporting Today

But what if this story had happened in 2015? How would I go about reporting it, who would I contact, what documents would I request, and what would my impact be? As an experiment (I am half-scientist, after all), I decided to see if I could recreate the story and retrace the journalists’ steps using public information available now.

Step 1: The Police Report

My first step in investigating this local crime begins with those first on the scene: police. Merrimack Police Department keeps a well-maintained website, which includes PDFs of daily call logs, up-to-date press releases, and even a map illustrating where each category of incident (vandalism, in the case of the beavers) incident occurs. A request for the suspect’s criminal record if convicted from the NH State Police Department may prove difficult, costly, and time-consuming, but could also make for an interesting story.

However, nothing outweighs speaking to the actual officers: Merrimack lists contact information for general inquiries, as well as emails for captains and lieutenants. As for the police report or the arrest record for the suspect, these require an in-person trip to the station and can be complicated by Fifth Amendment rights during an open investigation.

Step 2: The Law

So…the we called the police. What now? Destroying beaver dams sounds cruel, but is it illegal? A simple Google search (literally, “NH law beaver dams”) turns up the original wording of the official-sounding “TITLE XVIII FISH AND GAME CHAPTER 210 FUR-BEARING ANIMALS Beaver Section 210:9.” Past cases and violators can be found through the NH State Court’s new E-court Project, although the system was implemented only a few years ago and doesn’t include the 2004 case.

Step 3: Moving Up the Ladder

The law is regulated at the state level through the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.  A quick glance through the Department’s website uncovers an interactive map that illustrates state-owned wildlife conservation areas and a copy of the state’s mandated wildlife action plan listing policies for land and resource management, as well as research and conservation plans for animals like beavers. The Law Enforcement Division’s mission statement is promising to those seeking information, citing an “obligation to respond to the increasing public demands in a timely and respectful manner. To be successful, the mission must be administered without prejudice, always mindful that in the execution of their duties they act not for themselves, but for the public. The enforcement division’s patrol map also names the particular official responsible for Merrimack (area 41).

Step 4: Follow Up and Impact

Don’t let the investigation stop here. A look into annual police reports or statistics from other towns or the state police can uncover patterns and elevate the story to a state or regional level. Or maybe there’s no larger meaning, but at least checking can add some extra practice in requesting and locating information.

Your Turn!

How would you report the story differently in your own hometown? Who else would you contact, or what other information would you seek? Have you encountered a particular office or agency  that was difficult to cooperate with? Share your own hometown story in the comments section here or email me or tweet @amayrianne.

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 or tweet @amayrianne.

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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FOI Daily Dose: Illinois attorney clarifies public records ruling; National Press Club debates practices of public affairs offices

Illinois attorney clarifies public records ruling

An Illinois attorney clarified a public records ruling issued July 16 by the Fourth District Appellate Court, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The ruling said emails and text messages sent during public meetings about public business are public records.

But Peter Friedman, a Lake Bluff village attorney and a partner at Holland & Knight, clarified that the ruling does not apply to any electronic communications not pertaining to public business or those sent outside of board meetings.

“The appellate court correctly determined that private electronic communications outside the context of a board meeting are not public records under FOIA (Freedom of Information Act),” Friedman told the Tribune.

 National Press Club debating practices of federal public affairs offices

The National Press Club in Washington, DC,  is hosting a panel on Aug. 12 to debate whether federal public affairs practices are more of a hindrance or a help to reporters.

Public affairs offices typically require reporters to go through the press office to arrange interviews.

Those skeptical of the process complain that it limits who they interview. They are also frustrated that some companies require members of the communications team to be present with employees during their interview, according to the Press Club.

Other people feel public affairs professionals ensure that the press gets accurate information and a coherent message.

The debate will feature a panel of experts on both sides of the issue. The panel will be moderated by John M. Donnelly, chairman of the National Press Club’s Press Freedom Committee and a senior writer with CQ Roll Call.

Panel experts include:

  • Linda Petersen: Managing editor, The Valley Journals of Salt Lake; chairwoman SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee; and president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government
  • Carolyn Carlson: Former AP reporter; past SPJ national president; assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta; and author of two surveys on the relationship between public affairs staff and the press
  • John Verrico: President-elect of the National Association of Government Communicators
  • Kathryn Foxhall: Freelance reporter who has extensively researched the issue

FOI Daily Dose: Judge dismisses North Carolina public records lawsuit for confidential settlement; Pennsylvania considers changes to Right-to-Know law

Judge dismisses N.C. public records lawsuit against hospital chain for confidential settlement

A Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit a Charlotte attorney filed against one of the nation’s largest public hospital chains for violating the North Carolina public records law, according to The Charlotte Observer.

Superior Court Judge Robert Sumner ruled that the hospital chain, Carolinas HealthCare System, can legally keep a confidential settlement from its 2008 lawsuit against the former Wachovia Bank (see previous post).

Since the hospital chain’s board of directors made the settlement in a closed session and kept it confidential, attorney Gary Jackson filed a public records request to inspect it and ensure it’s fair.

In a hearing last week, attorneys for Carolinas HealthCare argued that the hospital chain can legally withhold the settlement because the state’s public records laws has many holes.

But Jackson said legislators never intended the law to allow confidential settlements in lawsuits involving government agencies, so he plans to appeal Sumner’s ruling to the N.C. Court of Appeals, according to The Observer.

The Observer notes that former state Senator David Hoyle who sponsored most North Carolina public records laws, agrees with Jackson.

“The intent was that if it becomes a court case, the results of the settlement were to be made public,” Hoyle told The Observer.

Pennsylvania considers changes to Right-to-Know law

As Pennsylvania lawmakers weigh a series of potential changes to the state’s 5-year-old Right-to-Know law, the head of Pennsylvania’s open records agency is telling them to proceed with caution, according to NewsWorks.

The Senate is considering one piece of legislation to address problems with the state’s open records, and the House has at least 10 different proposals.

But Terry Mutchler, director of the Office of Open Records, told NewsWorks some of the changes proposed in the name of open government could deny certain populations, such as prison inmates, the right to access information and exempt information from public requests.

“While the intent is good, I have some concerns with the results,” Mutchler told NewsWorks.

But until the legislature decides to change Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law, a recent Commonwealth Court decision could mean more access to information from state-related universities, according to Watchdog News.

In the case of Ryan Bagwell v. Department of Education, Bagwell, a Penn State alumnus, requested information about the Jerry Sandusky investigation, including emails, letters, reports and memos sent to then-Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis. The Commonwealth Court decided since the records are part of the education secretary’s job dealing with state-related universities, they should be released, Watchdog News said.

Mutchler expects the decision to have a “domino effect” on similar cases, and she expects the state to expand the Right-to-Know law for state-related universities.

“I am grateful the Legislature took its time with deciding this question, because it has to be done right, and it has to be done well, and the implications of it have to be thought through,” Mutchler told Watchdog News.

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: California reverses ruling on public records, New Mexico open government group fights for previously denied records

California to reverse ruling on public records

Pressure from reporters and open government advocates helped reverse legislation in California this week that threatened to make key parts of the state’s Public Records Act optional, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The California legislature passed Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal on June 14 with an inconspicuous trailer bill to help the state save money on reimbursing local governments when they fulfill records requests (see previous post).  The bill said agencies no longer needed to explain why they were unable to meet requests, and they could provide data in any form of their choosing.

Once the bill was passed, it attracted immediate criticism from news outlets and citizens who wrote editorials, emailed and called legislators en masse, according to the Times.

Public voices grew louder until Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) proposed legislation June 19 to rescind the bill’s negative side effects. But Pérez’s proposal was blocked in the Senate later that afternoon by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

Steinberg suggested passing the original legislation and then passing a constitutional amendment one year later to reinstate the records act and force local governments to pay for all its costs, the Times said (see another previous post).

But the one-year window of government secrecy induced more public outcry, so the legislature eventually agreed to pass both Pérez’s substitute bill and Steinberg’s constitutional amendment, calling it a short-term and a long-term solution.

Open government group in New Mexico fights for previously denied records

Freedom of information advocates in New Mexico are requesting previously denied records about the travel and expenses of Gov. Susana Martinez’s security detail during the 2012 election season, according to the ABQ Journal.

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (FOG) filed an inspection of Public Records Act request July 25 for “the schedules of any overtime paid to and all travel expenses of officers” assigned to Martinez’s personal security team when she made several political trips in August-October 2012, the Journal said.

The Department of Public Safety and the Department of Finance and Administration previously denied records requests from The Associated Press on grounds that the information might compromise the security of Martinez and her family.

But FOG argues that the agencies’ decision to deny the request flies in the face of a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling (Republican Party of New Mexico v. New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department) that prohibited the state from withholding records unless they are specifically exempted from release under the Inspection of Public Records Act or other regulation.

“This is a troubling response because we do not think it reflects clear direction from New Mexico’s Supreme Court on an important issue of public access,” FOG acting executive director Janice Honeycutt told the Journal. “We would urge the agency to comply and avoid a costly legal battle in which the taxpayers will likely pick up the tab.”

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: Privacy exemption limits most FOIA requests

Privacy is the most frequently cited exemption for denying Freedom of Information Act requests, according to a study by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University School of Communication.

The study compiled 15 years of annual FOIA  report data for 13 cabinet-level departments, excluding Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services because they mostly receive individual requests for personal records.

Of the nine exemptions that limit the free flow of information act, agencies used privacy exemptions more than 232,000 times last year, or 53 percent of the time, to deny requests.

The exemption has not been applied so broadly since the fiscal year of 2002 in the wake of Sept. 11.

The exemption is meant to protect personnel and medical flies, information that would constitute “a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” and law enforcement information that “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” according to the study.

FOI Tip of the Week: New open government podcast provides great transparency updates

“OG Pod,” a new open-government podcast focused on transparency issues in Washington, is available for listeners to access online.

The program provides advice for people searching for certain public records or planning to attend various government meetings. It will include rundowns on developments in the courts, legislature and media regarding transparency issues.

For those who need advice on the nitty gritty details of the Open Public Meetings Act or Public Records Act, this podcast will dish out plenty of helpful tips.

The Freedom Foundation and Greg Overstreet of Allied Law Group, which specializes in open government legal matters, host OG Pod. Its author is Michael Reitz, who serves as General Counsel of the Freedom Foundation and is the director of its Constitutional Law Center.

Listeners can access the podcasts from iTunes and Facebook as well.

– 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: Fla. records requests get cheaper, push for transparent redistricting in Ohio

Good news: Florida records to cost a little less

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is making it a little cheaper to access public records, easing the costs his open records policy originally required.

The state won’t charge people for public records work that takes less than 30 minutes to complete, according to a post by the Orlando Sentinel’s Central Florida Political Pulse blog. It also won’t charge requesters for the first 30-minute period of work that follows if the search takes longer than the initial half-hour time span.

The hourly rate that requesters will be charged for the time personnel spend on their request will also be changed. The rate was previously based on the salary of the specific person handling the records request, but people will now be charged $19.43 – an administrative assistant’s hourly rate.

Ohioans call for transparent redistricting process

Ohio residents gathered at the statehouse Wednesday to promote the need for transparency in the state’s congressional redistricting process.

People advocated in the first of five planned legislative hearings for representatives to improve the transparency of redistricting by disclosing proposed maps for public feedback prior to voting and to encourage public input in the process.

State lawmakers have until December 7 to approve a new map of the redrawn congressional districts, according to an Associated Press article.

The Ohio Campaign for Accountable Redistricting is running an online political contest where state residents can create maps that can then be voted upon by various users.

– 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: N.J. phone records made more public, Kundra unveiled .gov task force, ACLU asked to return classified doc

N.J. court requires public officials to reveal cell phone call locations

Location, location, location.

That can’t stay secret when it comes to cell phone records, according to a New Jersey court ruling.

Public officials using taxpayer-funded cell phones must disclose the destination of the calls they make because such information is helpful to the public interest, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The court case, Livecchia v. Borough of Mount Arlington, arose after after the borough redacted the locations of calls made by public officials when it filled resident Gayle Ann Livecchia’s records request.

Livecchia and other citizens can use the phone call locations, which must now be disclosed, to find out whether government employees are improperly using their work cells.

Federal task force to evaluate gov websites

Federal CIO Vivek Kundra revealed the names of 17 people who will comprise a .gov task force that will slim down government websites and evaluate potential policy adjustments for running such Web properties in the future.

Those appointed include IT professionals from various federal offices, according to a Government Tech blog post.

This task force complements President Obama’s “Campaign to Cut Waste,” which aims to cut unnecessary expenditures.

This includes paring down the 2,000-plus federal URLs in use.

Here’s a list of 1,759 top Web domains for the executive branch, as well as a Q&A page on the project that includes a list of all task force members.

Gov demands ACLU return classified doc

The federal government wants a judge to order the American Civil Liberties Union to return a classified document that was released to the organization detailing how employees decide which Afghanistan detainees are Enduring Security Threats.

The ACLU must respond to the government’s court filings by July 29, according to the Washington Post’s Checkpoint Washington blog.

The ACLU wants to post the document, which it says was improperly classified, to its website.

The Pentagon gave the organization the document, along with several others, in compliance with a court order requiring their release. The ACLU notified the government about the Afghanistan detainee document on May 25.

– 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).

 

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