Editor's Note

The FOI Advocate is a compendium of ideas, edited story excerpts and other materials from a variety of Web sites, as well as original concepts and analysis. When the information comes directly from another source, it will be attributed and a link will be provided whenever possible. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited. We will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Great News from Washington State!

From the Great State of Washington, home of the 2007 FOI Summit:

Taxpayers may see more government records, and news reporters can protect their sources without being jailed under two bills Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law.

The measures were among some two dozen that Gregoire signed on April 27.

Under the new sunshine law, a state committee is to examine more than 300 exemptions to the state's public-records act, a voter-approved law that spells out which government documents must be publicly disclosed.

Attorney General Rob McKenna requested the measure, which he said would repair years of damage done by laws and rules that keep government information out of taxpayers' view.

Voters overwhelmingly approved the state's public-records law by initiative in 1972.

The measure called for disclosure of campaign finances, lobbyist activity, financial affairs of elected officers and candidates, and access to public records.

When it passed, there were only 10 exemptions to the public-records section. Since then, hundreds of exemptions have been introduced.

Gregoire also signed a measure that protects journalists from being jailed for refusing to reveal their confidential sources of information.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Of Spies, and Secrets...

From the Times today comes a tale of spies and secrets...

Concerned about the growing dependence of the nation’s spy agencies on private contractors, top intelligence officials have spent months determining just how many contractors work at the C.I.A., D.I.A., F.B.I., N.S.A. and the rest of the spook alphabet soup.

Now they have an answer. But they cannot reveal it, they say, because America’s enemies might be listening.

Ronald P. Sanders, chief human capital officer for the director of national intelligence, said that because personnel numbers and agency budgets were classified, he could not reveal the contractor count.

“I can’t give you anything that would allow you to impute the size of the I.C. civilian work force,” Mr. Sanders said, using shorthand for “intelligence community” in a telephone briefing that covered everything about the contractor survey except its core findings.

Mr. Sanders said the study did find that about 25 percent of the intelligence work now contracted out resulted from personnel ceilings imposed by Congress. But 25 percent of what, he said he could not disclose.

Steven Aftergood of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said the decision not to reveal the numbers was a sign of dysfunctional policies.

“It reveals how confused the government is about what is really sensitive and what is not,” Mr. Aftergood said. “What would Osama bin Laden do with the fraction of intelligence workers who are contractors? Absolutely nothing.”

Steve is dead on here: we must begin a robust debate in this nation over what is quite properly a secret and what is just secrecy for operational CYA....

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

From Florida, A Charter School's Woes and E-Mail Records...

Florida Today has a fascinating tale of a charter school's woes, and e-mail sunshine violations? It's a heck of a read....

The Florida Sunshine Law prohibits members of public boards from discussing business outside public meetings -- including through e-mail.

But a review of electronic mail conversations among former leaders of Explorer Elementary and Middle School reveal a handful of possible violations by two board members in the month leading up to the charter's collapse.

"They can argue that they're just exchanging information, but the fact of the matter is it could have been a discussion that citizens would have wanted to take part in or be informed about," said Adria Harper, director of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.

FLORIDA TODAY requested e-mail records of Explorer's former principal, Ruben Rosario, in hopes of uncovering information about the problems that led to the district takeover last month.

Six weeks' worth turned up a series of exchanges between the school's former board president, Greg Gaddis, and former board secretary Patty Satter-
white. Most of the e-mails discussed administrative items, including preparation and distribution of meeting minutes.

But other e-mails sent separately from Gaddis and Satterwhite to the rest of the board directly addressed and solicited responses to significant issues, including the schools' finances and employment policies, that were scheduled for future board action.

In one e-mail, Gaddis suggested approving a revised audit "outside of our official meeting." In another, Satterwhite referred to two votes the board took through e-mail. Both e-mails appear to violate the state's open-government law...

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Give us a hand...unmask a senator!

You know that part in Nacho Libre when Nacho has his mask ripped off....what? You haven't seen Nacho Libre? What's keeping ya?

If you HAD, you would know what the Sunlight Foundation is about to do to some unwitting U.S. Senator....

Yet again an anonymous Senator has placed what is known in the Senate as an "anonymous hold" on legislation that would increase transparency (I know, the irony is killing me...). You may recall this same stunt last year....anyway, this time a secret hold has been placed on a bill, S. 223, that would mandate that Senators file their campaign finance reports electronically. This process would not only make these reports more readily available to the public but would also save money and resources.

Secret holds are in such disrepute that earlier this year the Senate itself banned the practice, although the bill containing that provision has yet to become law. But until secret holds are banished forever, we need your help in exposing the culprit who is blocking consideration of the electronic filing requirement for Senate campaign finance reports.

We need your help to find out who placed this secret hold! Call your Senators and ask them if they are the one with the secret hold on S. 223. Then report back to the Sunlight Foundation's website. They have a list of Senators, organized by state, and their contact info. If a Senator issues a denial they will indicate that next to their name....SO DON'T CALL IF THEY ALREADY ARE ON THE LIST AS NO......

Quote of the Week...

From the Argus Leader in South Dakota comes the quote of the week:

South Dakota's Supreme Court will hear oral arguments April 23 in the dispute over whether an invitation list to a governor's pheasant hunt is a public record.

The court's argument schedule, released Thursday, sets the hunt-list case for 11 a.m. April 23.

Oral arguments generally last 50 minutes, with each side getting 20 minutes to present a case, and the party that brought the appeal getting a final 10 minutes for rebuttal.

The case involves the Argus Leader's attempt to get the invitation list to the 2005 pheasant hunt sponsored by Gov. Mike Rounds. The hunt is a long-standing event billed as a way to showcase South Dakota for business prospects.

Jim Hagen, who headed the state Department of Tourism and State Development when the case started, is named as defendant.

The newspaper says the information should be available to the public, which has a right to know what government is doing. The Argus Leader argued in circuit courts that even though private money paid for the hunt, Hagen's agency - a taxpayer-supported state office - helped arrange and coordinate the event.

The basic concern is unchanged as the arguments go to the Supreme Court, says Randell Beck, executive editor of the Argus Leader.

"The over-arching point to our ongoing efforts to disclose the names of those invited to the pheasant hunt boils down to a very simple concept: Why not?'' Beck said. "In all the legal back and forth over this issue, the state has yet to tell us why the people of South Dakota don't deserve to know. That's because there is no good reason. It's pretty simple.''

The state argues that revealing the list of invitees could give other states a look at South Dakota's business recruitment strategy. Rounds used that argument early in the dispute when asked for the list, saying it would "provide economic development agencies of other states or cities with nothing less than a list of businesses which are willing to relocate or expand if given the proper business climate.''

Circuit Judge Max Gors ruled for the state in April. He noted that state law says records required to be kept by an agency are open to the public, but no law requires the invitation list to be kept.

Taken to its logical conclusion, Gors said, the Argus Leader argument "would require state agencies to maintain every scrap of paper generated by state government and to allow public inspection.''

Well, yeah, Judge Gors, that kinda what this whole sunshine law thingie is all about...

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Sanity 1, Secrecy 0

Calmer, more rational heads have prevailed in an access dispute I have been following in Louisville:

From FOI warrior and erstwhile environmental reporter James Bruggers comes the news:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has posted maps on its Web site showing how people who live downstream from the Wolf Creek Dam would be affected by flooding in the event of a breach.

As recently as last month, corps officials refused to make electronic versions of the maps public, citing terrorism fears, after initially saying they would do so.

Corps spokesman Bill Peoples said yesterday that the agency, after a thorough review, decided to make an exception to its policy of not allowing widespread distribution of the maps because the dam is considered a high risk for failure.

"We look at this as a special circumstance," he said. "It's always a balancing act between the security concerns we have as an agency … and what the public needs to know.

"We still have security concerns."

The corps turned down The Courier-Journal's request to obtain electronic versions of the maps in February, citing two exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act....

Now, despite the contention of one source in the story that the media has blown (OK, so his word was "blowed"...) the story out of porportion, wouldn't you generally want to know more, more -- not less -- about a dam upriver from you that is earthen, old and leaky?


Monday, April 16, 2007

FOI at work...

Jim Leusner, an FOI warrior, has just published a piece that uses FOIA to detail NASA's payments to the seven Columbia astronauts. It's an interesting look at NASA policy in the wake of a terrible tragedy....

From the Orlando Sentinel:

NASA paid $26.6 million to the families of seven astronauts who died aboard space shuttle Columbia -- a settlement that has been kept secret for more than 21/2 years.

The space agency recruited former FBI Director William Webster, also a former federal judge, to act as a mediator and adviser in negotiating the out-of-court settlements, according to documents released to the Orlando Sentinel through a federal Freedom of Information Act request.

The newspaper's request yielded just seven pages of documents that leave many questions unanswered, including exactly when the settlements occurred.

In an interview with the Sentinel, Webster, also a former CIA director, said he was bound by confidentiality and couldn't discuss details of the agreements, but defended the process as proper.

"The members of the [survivors'] families wanted this to be a private matter," said Webster, a consulting partner in Washington with the international law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy. "They were healing, and they were ready to discuss, properly, their rights. . . . Everyone felt it had a better chance of coming together without seeing their name in lights."

In brief written responses to Sentinel questions Friday, NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said little about the settlements, citing family privacy. He said the money came from the agency's budget via a 2004 congressional appropriation.

"The Columbia astronauts were our friends and co-workers," Beutel wrote. "Our concern always has been with the crew's families and their loss, and as a result NASA didn't announce details of the settlement in an effort to protect the personal privacy of the Columbia families."

Former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and ex-general counsel Paul Pastorek, who helped set up the settlement process, did not return phone calls and e-mails.

Dr. Jon Clark, widower of astronaut Laurel Blair Salton Clark, said NASA was "deferential" in dealing with the families through a turbulent period in their lives.

"We were in a state of shock," he said. "To go the lawsuit route, it's very painful and very protracted. So we settled."

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said he understood the families' desire for privacy but criticized NASA for not disclosing the settlements earlier. NASA, he said, is behaving as if the settlement is a source of embarrassment.

"It's not NASA's money. It's public money," he said.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Check Out The Watchdog Column...

My good pal Jennifer LaFleur, a computer-assisted reporting guru and all-around FOI warrior, has launched a citizen watchdog column in the Dallas Mornings News. It has lots of great tips and FOI stories, and is well worth bookmarking. Way to go, Jennifer!

Her latest column, on how Texas citizens can background anybody using public records, is a must read.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

So Many Deserving Candidates...

The Bush administration and the Defense Department are among the winners of the 2007 Jefferson Muzzle awards, given Tuesday by a free-speech group to those it considers the most egregious First Amendment violators in the past year.

The Bush administration appears on the list, compiled by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, for its efforts to discourage, modify and sometimes censor government scientists’ reports and studies to be more in line with the administration’s political policies, notably on global warming, the center said.

“The number of major scientists who have come forward and indicated they were constrained by the administration viewpoint is quite worrisome,” center director Robert M. O’Neil told The Associated Press. “There have been similar concerns arising in other areas but we wanted to focus specifically on climate change as the most invaded or intruded area.”

Monday, April 09, 2007

Florida Opens Dockets...

From the First Amendment Center:

The Florida Supreme Court issued emergency rules yesterday designed to stop the improper sealing of court records and dockets in civil cases, but delayed a decision on whether they also should cover criminal cases.

The unsigned, unanimous opinion requires court clerks to post notices on their Web sites and courthouses after a record is sealed and allows citizens to then challenge those decisions. Courts are also prohibited from making case, docket and other identifying numbers confidential.

“Most significant for our purposes here ... the removal from public view of all information acknowledging the existence of a case is expressly not allowed,” the justices wrote.

That’s exactly what happened in Broward County with divorces and other civil cases involving more than 100 prominent people, including television personalities, judges and elected officials.

The Miami Herald last year disclosed the hidden docket after obtaining case numbers and names, but not sealed documents, through a lawsuit...

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Closing the Statehouse Door?

From the Associated Press comes a fresh outrage....

The move was as much a surprise to most legislators as it was to reporters. Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson stepped to the podium two weeks ago on one of the busiest days of the legislative session and introduced a ban on reporters from the chamber while lawmakers are in session.

Within hours, the proposal was adopted and Georgia joined a growing number of states restricting journalists' access to lawmakers while legislative bodies are in session.

According to an Associated Press survey, legislative leaders in at least 38 states have restricted reporters from accessing lawmakers on the floors of at least one chamber during a floor session. Georgia joined Kansas this year in seemingly reviving the trend after several years in which few - if any - legislative leaders moved to restrict access.

Often, the measures are touted as a way to maintain order so legislators can focus on the debate at hand, or as a way to give lawmakers more space to maneuver through increasingly crowded rooms.

In Kansas, a new House Speaker imposed a similar ban on reporters this year in hopes of preserving decorum. In Georgia, the House leader argued reporters were given more leeway than their counterparts in other states.

"It just says the media is not to be given more rights than the public," said Richardson, a Republican from the Atlanta suburb of Hiram, before the change was approved on a 132-29 vote.

Critics contend it furthers limits the public's access to elected officials and restricts monitoring of government.

"This is another effort to impede public access to government proceedings," said Hollie Manheimer of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. "By limiting the flow of information to the public, this is a step backward."

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Wolf Freed....

From the San Francisco Chronicle

Josh Wolf, the blogger whose record 7 1/2 months in federal prison stirred debate about who qualifies as a journalist and what legal protections they should receive, was freed today after releasing video footage sought by prosecutors about an anarchist protest.

[Hear Josh Wolf's news conference (.mp3)]

Wolf, 24, held in contempt by a federal judge last August for defying a grand jury subpoena, walked out of the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin at mid-afternoon after his lawyers and federal prosecutors reached a compromise, with the help of a federal magistrate.

Wolf posted the uncut video on his Web site, gave prosecutors a copy and denied under oath that he knew anything about violent incidents at the July 2005 protest. In return, his lawyers said, prosecutors agreed not to summon him before the grand jury or ask him to identify any of the protesters shown on his video.

Prosecutors' withdrawal of their demand for his testimony was the key to the deal, Wolf told reporters outside the prison gate.

"Journalists absolutely have to remain independent of law enforcement,'' he said. "Otherwise, people will never trust journalists.''

Asked about his imprisonment -- the longest-ever for a U.S. journalist for withholding information -- Wolf said, "Absolutely, this was worth it. I would do it again if I had to.'' He also said his case showed the need for a federal "shield law'' that would protect journalists, including bloggers, from having to disclose confidential sources or unpublished material.