Monday, October 06, 2008
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
From the University of Wisconsin-Madison:
The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a statewide nonprofit group devoted to protecting access to public meetings and records, will mark its 30th anniversary with a program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Monday, Oct. 13.
The program, hosted by the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, will include an address by Shirley Abrahamson, chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, on the importance of open government in Wisconsin.
The event, which runs from 4-5:30 p.m., is free and open to the public. It will be held in the Nafziger Conference Room on the fifth floor of Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave.
There is much disagreement on this question. Naturally, Wall Street blamed disclosure of balance sheet information. Others say the data disclosed through the current accounting method may be misleading. Some experts agree with Charles Mulford who said disclosure "helped to make this crisis less of a crisis, if that's possible."
In the midst of the nation's current financial crisis -- including Monday's historic 777-point Dow drop and Congress's efforts to bail out the financial services industry -- transparency has been a key part of the debate: how much should be disclosed, when and by whom.
Last week, Wall Street blamed its woes in part on accounting rules that require regular release of balance sheet information. To wit: one article on the issue bore the headline, “Wall St. Points to Disclosure As Issue.”
Some experts say the problem is not that banks and other financial services companies are required to give out more data than before, or that they’re not following the rules, but others disagree.
After the city of Radford, Va., heavily redacted parts of FOIA requests related to an internal city investigation of a harassment complaint, The Roanoke Times filed suit. Earlier this month, the newspaper challenged the sheriff's office policy of withholding photos of inmates released on bond.
The Roanoke Times filed suit Monday against the city of Radford over the city's decision to withhold portions of documents the newspaper sought under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
The lawsuit -- technically called a "writ of mandamus" -- centers around two FOIA requests filed with Radford officials in August and September by Roanoke Times reporter Tim Thornton. Among other things, Thornton asked the city to provide him copies of any other FOIA requests the city received between June 15 and Sept. 18.
In response to Thornton's requests, City Attorney Jim Guynn provided heavily redacted copies of two FOIA requests, erasing names and other pertinent information and in one case excluding two pages of a two-and-a-half-page document.
The Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission has seen a steady increase in the number of grievances filed. It expects to receive 864 by the end of the year. The commission attributes the increase to citizens being better educated about FOI laws and an increase in government secrecy. Private residents account for 70 percent of requests filed.
In December, when Fairfield First Selectman Ken Flatto removed the town Conservation Department from overseeing the largest development in town history, he did it behind closed doors.
In response, Kathryn Braun, a Fairfield attorney, helped draft a Freedom of Information complaint against the selectman for the Fairfield Friends of Open Space, a preservation group. She alleged the private meeting was illegal because it concerned matters meant for the public.
"We considered it a secret meeting in which government business was conducted," Braun said. "If you're going to change the structure of government, do it publicly."
Her complaint now is one of a record number before the state Freedom of Information Commission, which is hard-pressed to explain a cause for this year's increase.
Monday, September 29, 2008
It was a simple process for a trained technician. Just push up a white ceiling tile, connect a few wires, and a hidden camera was ready to record everyone coming and going in a Cascade High School classroom.
Veteran English and journalism teacher Kay Powers was in trouble.
A proud 1960s lefty whose idea of vacation was to get arrested protesting at a federal military installation, Powers helped students work on the Free Stehekin, an underground newspaper, using school equipment. That was in direct violation of district orders, but she believed she was fighting for freedom of the press.More here.
Former Everett School District Superintendent Carol Whitehead was angry. She was determined to make sure Powers and her students obeyed. On May 10, 2007, the school district had a vendor install a hidden camera in Powers' classroom -- something school officials denied for four months until evidence emerged proving otherwise. The elected school board members, largely silent during the controversy, later sent an e-mail to all Everett's principals saying Whitehead had their full support.
Nice column from The Capital Times in Madison, Wis., with sample questions to ask election candidates:
Openness in government is critical to democracy. Wisconsin state law makes that clear in this high-minded preamble to the Wisconsin open meetings law:
"In recognition of the fact that a representative government of the American type is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state that the public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government as it compatible with the conduct of governmental business."
How are we doing in real life? Not always so good.
That's why it's important, in an election year, to ask the candidates questions that help reveal their commitment to openness in government.
If Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez doesn't get a better grasp of the "public" part of being a public official, it's going to keep costing him and the city.More here.
The state Freedom of Information Commission on Wednesday ruled unanimously that Mr. Perez broke the state's sunshine law when he convened closed meetings to see if the city's major corporations would support a new arena in Hartford.
The commission fined Mr. Perez $500 and recommended that he and city corporation counsel John Rose attend a workshop on the state's freedom of information laws. This was an unusual step for the commission, but an appropriate one. The meetings of a task force initiated by the mayor to study the feasibility of a major downtown building that almost invariably will need public assistance are clearly in the public interest.
The technology is there but some officials are not up to speed -- or don't want to be up to speed. While government officials are provided with official e-mail accounts, many continue to use their personal accounts, making it harder to obtain e-mails through FOIA requests.
Douglas White wanted to exercise his right as a citizen to see some public records. What he found is that some Blacksburg town officials, like many others in the New River Valley, tread a fine line between open government and secrecy.
White lives just outside the Blacksburg town limits, close to a proposed workforce housing project along Harding Road. He and many of his neighbors do not like the project for a host of reasons.
The project's prospects do not look particularly promising right now, what with all the thumb twiddling the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors has been doing in secret meetings. That will not stop White and his neighbors from keeping up the fight until it dies officially.
Friday, September 26, 2008
As a vice presidential candidate, Gov. Sarah Palin has railed against federal earmarks, or congressional funding for pork-barrel projects. "In our state, we reformed the abuses of earmarks," Palin recently boasted to a rally in Lancaster, Pa. "We championed earmark reform up there," she said, "to stop Congress from wasting public money on things that didn't serve the public interest."
But musty records culled from the archives of the Wasilla, Alaska, city government reveal that Palin was directly involved in soliciting millions of dollars in earmarks for Wasilla when she was mayor. And she got help from a well-connected Washington lobbyist.
In a monthly status report to the city on March 7, 2000, newly hired "City Lobbyist" Steve Silver describes how the Palin administration had requested $6.6 million in federal earmarks for water and sewer improvements for Wasilla, and another $1 million for police equipment. Mayor Palin reviewed and signed the lobbyist's report, dated April 5, 2000.
This spring, the Coast Guard allegedly faked a key test of its flagship National Security Cutter, according to sources close to the program. The maritime service denies this. But six months later, the Coast Guard essentially has rejected two blogs' Freedom of Information Act requests for documentation related to the test. (The Coast Guard asked for $18,000 in fees to honor the request, and denied applications for the standard fee waiver for journalists.)More here.
On Monday, Coastie Commandant Thad Allen explained why: The service doesn't necessarily consider blogs legitimate media, and so didn't feel they were owed the same considerations under FOIA. Allen made these points during a Pentagon-sponsored conference call with bloggers, to announce a new "social media engagement" strategy.
Many workers keep little secrets from their employers — how much time they spend on private e-mail, for example, or how many pens find their way home in pockets.More here.
But it's less likely that they have a lot of big secrets — such as contracts or deals with other organizations that alter the way they do business in significant ways — ways that may adversely affect the employer.
There's one organization, though, where large secrets are routinely, head-shakingly, kept from the boss: the government of the United States — more important, the bureaucrats who run it.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
West Virginia’s capital city is asking the state Supreme Court to weigh in on a records request from its largest newspaper.
Lawyers for The Charleston Gazette and the city of Charleston are scheduled to argue Tuesday over the city’s 2007 denial of a Freedom of Information Act request for police time sheets and activity logs.
The newspaper sought records for 28 officers after four officers pleaded guilty to charges alleging they worked second paid jobs while on duty.
The city’s denial cited privacy concerns, an ongoing criminal investigation and court orders sealing some records. But the city also sought a Kanawha County Circuit judge’s guidance on the law, and appealed when it was turned down.
The relationship between a university and its student newspaper is typically one of give and take. Some of this professional courtesy, however, has fallen by the wayside at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
In response to numerous sweeping Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by The Daily Nebraskan, the university is now denying student reporters direct access to top administrators for interviews. All information and comment previously sought from these individuals must now be gathered from the institution’s public relations office.
The administration claims the student newspaper’s recent history of seeking broad and, some argue, pointless FOIA requests of the university has burdened their previously harmonious working relationship. Student journalists at The Nebraskan, however, maintain that their document requests are within reason and that the university’s new policy of shielding administrators from interviews is hurting the newspaper’s coverage.
It's been a long battle, but a federal appeal court has ruled that photos of torture at Abu Ghraib are not exempt from FOIA and dismissed arguments that the images could "lead to the endangerment of the life or safety of any individual." Although, the images were public long before now, the victory for the public's right to know is nonetheless an important one.
After nearly five years of fighting between the federal government and the American Civil Liberties Union over images of torture at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, a federal appeals court ruled today that the photos must be made available to the public.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan (2nd Cir.) affirmed a 2006 district court order that dismissed the government's arguments that privacy rights of the soldiers and detainees in the images would be violated -- noting the redactions in the form of black bars over the subjects' faces -- and agreed that any potential damage caused by the release of the photos was "far too speculative" to justify their withholding.
The Department of Defense had initially only argued the privacy implications warranted withholding the 29 images under the Freedom of Information Act. Months after oral arguments, the defendants asserted a second rationale for non-disclosure -- essentially that the images were so incendiary that the government "reasonably believed" their release could lead to endangerment of "the life or safety of any individual."
The New York Times analyzed federal records to find that practically ever L.I.R.R. employee, even those with desk jobs, applied for and received disability pay. Apparently, most are able-bodied until they retire. However, the Railroad Retirement Board rarely rejects a disability claim.
To understand what it’s like to work on the railroad — the Long Island Rail Road — a good place to start is the Sunken Meadow golf course, a rolling stretch of state-owned land on Long Island Sound.
During the workweek, it is not uncommon to find retired L.I.R.R. employees, sometimes dozens of them, golfing there. A few even walk the course. Yet this is not your typical retiree outing.
These golfers are considered disabled. At an age when most people still work, they get a pension and tens of thousands of dollars in annual disability payments — a sum roughly equal to the base salary of their old jobs. Even the golf is free, courtesy of New York State taxpayers.
With incentives like these, occupational disabilities at the L.I.R.R. have become a full-blown epidemic.
UPDATE: Agents raid office in L.I.R.R. Disability Inquiry; The New York Times
Nearly two-thirds of schools in New York state are not receiving the twice-yearly health inspections required by federal law to curb food poisoning, making the state among the nation's worst offenders.
Compliance is even lower in Monroe County, where almost eight in 10 schools were not inspected twice in the 2006-07 school year, the most recent on record at the state Education Department. One in four were not inspected at all.
Meanwhile, inspection reports reviewed by the Democrat and Chronicle showed that one in five public school cafeterias in Monroe County failed to meet health standards in the last two years.
Determining if the vehicle you're about to purchase has been in an accident or flood isn't easy. There is no consistent nationwide reporting system, which has led to numerous cases of fraud.According to the LA Times, the implementation of the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System will require state motor vehicle administrators, insurers and junkyards to report title information to a central database.
Sixteen years ago, Congress passed a law requiring the creation of a national database of vehicle title information that would allow consumers to determine whether a vehicle had been in a serious accident. It seemed like a great idea, but it was never implemented.
Thanks to a federal court ruling today, however, that should soon be changing.
A U.S. District Court judge for the Northern District of California handed down a decision that requires the federal government to create a database of stolen cars and state, insurance and junkyard title information. Government-supplied data are to be made public by the end of January, with private industry data coming out by the end of March.
The ruling comes after years of pressure from consumer groups, which pointed out that without access to such information, motorists cannot really know whether a vehicle has been severely damaged or "totaled." That's a serious safety risk, because badly wrecked cars can be unsafe to drive even if they're repaired.
Sunday, September 21, 2008
You are far more likely to need an ambulance than a firetruck.
But Ohio won't let you see the records that show how fast the paramedics in your community respond to calls.
Since 2002, the Ohio Emergency Medical Services agency has kept track of response time for each medical emergency in the state. But the agency issues a report card only for each county, not for each fire department.
That's because state lawmakers decided to keep individual departments' records -- not just individual patients' records -- from the public eye.
Northeastern University said Friday that it has created a research and advocacy center to increase access to public records, which have become increasingly shielded by government.
The New England First Amendment Center will offer citizens, journalists and public policy organizations information on access to government. The university-based center will have a hotline to advise people seeking public documents and will host seminars for journalists, municipal officials and lawmakers on public records and open meeting laws.
Walter Robinson, Northeastern's coordinator of the center, said the federal government has restricted access to more records since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Visit the New England First Amendment Center Web site here.
Vice President Dick Cheney must preserve a broad range of records from his time in office, a federal judge ordered Saturday, ruling in favor of a private watchdog group.More here.
U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly found that the records are not excluded from preservation under Presidential Records Act, which gives the national archivist responsibility over the custody of and access to the records at the end of a president's final term.
The Bush administration had sought a narrow interpretation of the act to allow for fewer materials to be preserved by the National Archives.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
From the Boston Herald:
Northeastern University has established a research and advocacy center to focus attention on increasing efforts by government to limit access to public records and meetings.
The "First Amendment Center of New England" will offer citizens, journalists and public policy organizations information on open access to government. The center, announced Friday, will also have a hotline to advise citizens seeking public documents and will host seminars on public records and open meeting laws.
The university-based center is a joint project of the New England First Amendment Coalition and Northeastern’s School of Journalism.
Five e-mails sent by West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Elliott “Spike” Maynard to Massey Energy chief Don Blankenship show the justice was concerned with a Democratic challenger’s candidacy ahead of a primary that he ultimately lost.More here.
The e-mails were released today, one day after a Kanawha County Circuit judge sided with the Associated Press, which sued the Supreme Court to have the messages released under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
Judge Duke Bloom ruled yesterday that judicial officers are not exempt from the state’s open-records laws. Bloom’s order gave the Supreme Court 10 days to release the documents.
She was the first woman to climb the north face of the Grand Teton, but former U.S. Rep. Jolene Unsoeld feels that exposing big money in politics is an even grittier, more hazardous challenge.
Unsoeld, of Olympia, received the James Madison Award from the Washington Coalition for Open Government at a Friday breakfast in Seattle.
The award honored Unsoeld as a driving force behind the state Public Disclosure Act, and as compiler of a book ("Who Gave? Who Got? How much?" ) that put footprints on the large vested interests pulling the strings of state government.
Friday, September 19, 2008
Terry Mutchler, the counselor hired, operated with the principle: "No one is above the state's public access laws." But now she's leading Pennsylvania's new open records office. A hiring freeze has been imposed. And, most disturbing of all, the governor has cut the attorney general's budget by 25 percent, more than any other state agency.
The public access office is left with a counselor and fewer resources to continue handling more than 1300 open meetings and FOIA cases a year, most requested by citizens.
During Lisa Madigan's campaign to become Illinois' attorney general, people took note when she pledged to throw back the shades and shed light on the inner-workings of state, local, and county government. Her plan was simple: to hire a public access counselor who would help average citizens and those elected officials with an independent streak understand state laws and, when needed, ride public bodies until they disclosed credit card statements, closed session minutes, cell phone records, and the like.
Dropping the hammer on Illinois public officials who have earned a reputation for doing their bidding behind closed doors -- from single-school districts all the way up to the governor's office -- may have come at a cost, Madigan's deputy chief of staff Cara Smith said. The governor decided to trim AG's budget by more than any other state agency this year. "Do I think this is a coincidence that our budget was cut by 25 percent? Absolutely not," Smith added.
And the public access office has become a casualty of the cuts.
Last spring, Public Access Counselor Terry Mutchler called it quits, after landing a job to head up Pennsylvania's new open records office. With the attorney general's budget gutted, a hiring freeze has been imposed, which has left her position vacant for nearly four months.
It's not a great idea to run a government using Yahoo! e-mail accounts.More here.
That's the word from experts, anyway, reacting to news that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's Yahoo! e-mail had been hacked earlier this week. McCain's vice-presidential pick reportedly used the accounts to communicate with key aides about government business.
The practice is dangerous, said experts, and can run counter to laws ensuring government is open and accountable -- a tough point for Palin, who has made "open government" a catchphrase of her political identity.
In Vermont, the legislature has a policy of deleting e-mails after 90 days. Therefore, when a teacher requested records of communication concerning a school funding bill, none were available.
The Legislative Council is also arguing that communication between constituents and individual lawmakers are not open records and that making them public could infringe upon the right of constituents to petition their government.
Curt Hier has been trying to find out if a teachers' union influenced lawmakers' votes on a school funding bill, but says his requests for public records from the Vermont Legislature have produced nothing but frustration.More here.
Hier, a Fair Haven teacher who heads school reform group First Class Education-Vermont, said he has been trying to investigate the Vermont National Education Association's failed efforts to get lawmakers to repeal a 2007 law designed to put the brakes on rising school costs.
"I've gotten a whole lot of different stories," Hier said. "All the roadblocks I see lead me to believe there might very well be some embarrassing e-mails to be had."
Thursday, September 18, 2008
John McCain and Sarah Palin say they want to reform Washington.
But Palin's personal Yahoo e-mail account raises questions about the validity of that claim. The Alaska governor apparently uses the account to conduct state business, as do others in her office. And a fight has been under way for the release of hundreds of e-mails from that account that were withheld from public-records requests.
Palin should speak out about the issue, letting the public know why she used a personal account to conduct state business and why that doesn't cast a shadow on her reformist image. Before Palin was selected as the Republican vice presidential nominee, she presented her 2006 campaign as one that was "open and transparent."
For five years, the E-Government Act has promoted improvements in the federal government's use of information technology, including increased transparency for government information. The Senate is expected to pass the E-Government Reauthorization Act of 2007 by unanimous consent later tonight. CDT believes that the reauthorization includes two key improvements to the E-Government Act in a call for the development of best practices for Privacy Impact Assessments, and to make online government information more accessible to search.More here.
The Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday grappled with the realities of the computer age as it weighed the question of when a “deleted” public record becomes a “destroyed” public record.More here.
At issue is a lawsuit by The Blade seeking to force the Seneca County commissioners to hire a forensic computer expert at county expense to recover deleted e-mails from an 18-month period, some of which the newspaper contends may contain illegal private communications related to the proposed razing of the county’s historic courthouse. “We’re talking about a very finite amount of time here, and we’re talking about e-mails from two or three people to one another,” said Justice Maureen O’Connor. “It just doesn’t seem to me to be that overwhelmingly burdensome or such a huge task here for the county to not even attempt to comply.”
Activists stressed the importance of the Office of Government Information Services continuing to serve as independent mediator in FOIA disputes.
Open-government advocates renewed their calls Wednesday for quick implementation of the latest Freedom of Information reforms, including the establishment of an ombudsman office.
Congress has appropriated $1 million for the Office of Government Information Services but the money will not be available until the next fiscal year. The reforms were slowed by Bush administration efforts to move the new office from the National Archives, where Congress placed it in legislation last year, to the Justice Department.
As a result, the National Archives has yet to get the office up and running.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Federal agency with the most delinquent employees? The U.S. Postal Service, but it's also the largest agency.
Agency with the best compliance rate? The Federal Housing Finance Board.
From the U.S. Postal Service to the Executive Office of the President, thousands of federal workers have not paid their 2007 federal income taxes.
The Internal Revenue Service is trying to collect billions of dollars in unpaid taxes from nearly half a million federal employees. According to IRS records, 171,549 current federal workers did not voluntarily pay their federal income taxes in 2007. The same is true for 37,752 active duty military and nearly 200,000 retired civilian and military personnel.
Documents obtained by WTOP through the Freedom of Information Act show 449,531 federal employees and retirees did not pay their taxes for a total of $3,586,784,725 in taxes owed last year.
The Iowa Freedom of Information Council's annual meeting takes place Friday in Des Moines, so it has me reflecting on the status of public access to government.
The bottom line: It could be worse, but it could be a whole lot better.
The council, of which I am an executive committee member and past president, recently published an update on various legal actions involving government access.
There are some victories -- but at a cost.
City Hall officials maintain that the city keeps no records that they are required to show the public on how take-home vehicles issued by the city to 194 municipal employees are used.
The Journal News requested records of the amount of gasoline used and the miles driven by employees with the city-owned vehicles dating to 2003. The newspaper made the request under the state's Freedom of Information Law.
"Please be advised that no individualized records exist," wrote city Records Access Officer Eric Arena last month, responding to a May 9 request for information.
In its first ruling since gaining new authority, the Mississippi Ethics Commission has ruled a private citizen is entitled to redacted Jackson police initial incident reports involving George Bell III in the slaying of his ex-girlfriend.
"We came down on the side of openness," Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Hood said of the first advisory opinion in a records dispute.
In May, Gov. Haley Barbour signed the legislation into law, and it was later cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice giving the Ethics Commission authority to mediate disputes over open meetings and public records and issue rulings or opinions based on the law.
Read our blog post on the decision to create the ethics commission here.
Sunday, September 14, 2008
An unpaid adviser to the Westchester County board isn't so unpaid - taxpayers were billed for his trips to destinations like Hawaii, Chicago, Kansas City and Scotland.More here.
Herman Geist, an adviser to Board of Legislators Chairman William Ryan, is also equipped with a BlackBerry, bringing his total expenses to $13,270 over four years, according to records obtained under the state Freedom of Information Law.That money is in addition to nearly $150,000 in travel, cell-phone and transportation costs incurred by the 17-member county board since 2003 - including $54,968 for legislators to attend various conferences and events.
The settlement terms of several wrongful death lawsuits brought in Spotsylvania County against a pharmaceutical company must be disclosed publicly and cannot be sealed in the court records, a Virginia Supreme Court ruled today.More here.
The unanimous opinion upholds a circuit court ruling that it was improper to permit the suits to be settled without the details disclosed in court.
The deaths occurred at Mary Washington Hospital 2004 and 2005 and the defendants in the case were B. Braun Medical Inc. and its subsidiary, Central Admixture Pharmacy Services (CAPS). After the cases were settled with the settlement terms filed in the court records, The Free Lance-Star and the Richmond Times-Dispatch intervened and, after hearings, a circuit judge ruled that the terms of the settlements must be filed in the court clerk’s office. The judge agreed to seal the settlements until the Supreme Court decided the appeals.
Attorneys representing Gov. Matt Blunt and Missouri's top computer officer are seeking dismissal of a lawsuit over access to the governor's office e-mails.More here.
Blunt and information officer Dan Ross filed motions this week in Cole County Circuit Court claiming the lawsuit fails to make clear, specific allegations and fails to support its assertions. Judge Richard Callahan scheduled a hearing on the dismissal motions for Sept. 24.Ross' attorney contends that the state information officer is not the custodian of any public record and therefore should not be named in a lawsuit seeking access to documents.
Friday, September 12, 2008
An open records request was initially filed in June for copies of the incoming and outgoing e-mails of two top Palin aides suspected of using business hours to engage in political activity. The documents Palin's office turned over to Andree McLeod, an independent government watchdog in Alaska, revealed possible ethics and hiring laws violations but also raised an interesting question: Why were 1100 e-mails, many of which were written by or sent to Palin, withheld?
Dozens of e-mails exchanged among several government employees and Todd Palin, the husband of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin who has no formal role in her administration, are not being turned over in response to an open records request in the state.Read more.
The e-mails are being kept secret ostensibly because they deal with policy deliberations between the governor and her staff, the contents of which do not have to be disclosed to the public. However, Todd Palin's presence in the e-mail chains seems to belie concerns that their contents need to remain strictly in the domain of the state government.
More coverage of this issue:
- Appeal filed in the case of Sarah Palin's secret emails; Mother Jones
- Sarah Palin's secret e-mails; Mother Jones
- Anchorage activist seeks Palin records; Star Tribune (Minn.)
- Governor is asked to release e-mails; Washington Post
- Palin e-mails show intense interest in trooper's penalty; Washington Post
Squeezed for profits, news media companies no longer are pushing for access to information as they once did, a panel of Denver journalists said at a National Press Club forum here Tuesday.
"The media seems less and less willing to fight back and to challenge government authority in a legal sense," said Brian Maass, who leads the investigative team at Denver's CBS 4.He was speaking at a National Press Club Centennial Forum on the First Amendment, freedom of the press and the future of journalism at the Denver Press Club.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
- 'That's classified': Shining a light on Washington's growing reliance on secrecy; U.S. News & World Report
- Curtailing open government; Las Vegas Sun
- US government secrecy continues to rise: annual report; JURIST
- Lipstick on the Constitution?; OpEdNews.com
- Federal secrecy on the rise, even about honeybees; Politics on the Hudson from The Journal News/LoHud.com
- Open government must be preserved; MassLive.com from The Republican (Mass.)
In the seven years since the September 11 terrorist attacks, there has been a dramatic escalation in federal government secrecy. This increase in information classification comes with a staggering price tag -- a record high of $9.5 billion in 2006 -- and is taking place in the face of almost universal agreement that classifying information is not enhancing national security.More here.
In "Reinventing Transparent Government," a new policy brief for The Century Foundation, Patrick Radden Keefe, fellow and expert on national security and civil liberties issues, calls for rolling back the secrecy of the Bush years and restoring transparency and accountability to American government.
Read the full brief here.
Complaint filed after newspaper reveals governor may have used state aircraft for political advantage
After the Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne, Ind., reported that Gov. Mitch Daniels' 113 trips in the past 19 months included appearances that seem political, his opponent's campaign asked the state Inspector General to investigate:
Democrat Jill Long Thompson's campaign filed a complaint with the state Inspector General's office Wednesday seeking a formal investigation of Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels' election-year use of state aircraft.
The Democratic gubernatorial candidate's campaign also filed a public records request seeking Daniels' travel logs and the e-mails, phone records and time sheets of all state workers who may have helped plan his trips or traveled with him.
The request comes about a week after The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne reported that Daniels logged about 85 percent as many flights in state aircraft in the first seven months of this election year as he did all of last year.More here.
More coverage on this issue:
Tuesday, September 09, 2008
We urge the federal court in Utah to refrain from adopting a new rule that would close public access to any plea agreements that reveal whether a defendant is cooperating with authorities.The rule would strike at the heart of the public's right to know what has happened in a criminal case. It would diminish public trust in the judicial system and potentially lay the groundwork for abuse.
And it's unnecessary. The proposal addresses a fear that may be a mere chimera.
Editors of the Eastern Progress, student newspaper for Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, scored a victory for open records in an appeal to the Kentucky attorney general that challenged the university's redaction of information from campus police reports.More here.
The Kentucky attorney general agreed with the Progress' argument that the university had overstepped the law in redacting — or removing — addresses and other personal information from campus police department reports obtained by the Progress through a Freedom of Information Act request.
While the number of FOIA requests received increased, an increase was also noticed in the number records classified as confidential.
Read the full report here.
An AP story reported:
Government secrecy is on the rise by almost every measure, according to a report by a coalition of government oversight groups.More here.
They said the U.S. is classifying more records as top secret or otherwise confidential and employing fewer workers who make federal documents available publicly.
"The open society on which we pride ourselves has been undermined and will take hard work to repair," said the report, described as a "secrecy report card" by OpenTheGovernment.org. It cited 14 different measurements to quantify government secrecy, including patents hidden from the public, secret court approvals for surveillance in sensitive terrorism and espionage investigations and the expanding use of informal labels to keep documents from being disclosed.
Additional coverage of the 2008 Government Secrecy Report Card:
Months before the Bush administration ends, historians and open-government advocates are concerned that Vice President Cheney, who has long bristled at requirements to disclose his records, will destroy or withhold key documents that illustrate his role in forming U.S. policy for the past 7 1/2 years.
In a preemptive move, several of them have agreed to join the advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington in asking a federal judge to declare that Cheney's records are covered by the Presidential Records Act of 1978 and cannot be destroyed, taken or withheld without proper review.
The group expects to file the lawsuit today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. It will name Cheney, the executive offices of the president and vice president, and the National Archives and chief archivist Allen Weinstein as defendants.
Friday, September 05, 2008
On Oct. 19, 2007, the Free Press submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for all documents in the police whistle-blower settlement that cost the City of Detroit $8.4 million. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and lawyers then schemed to hide the documents and cover up lies he told under oath in the lawsuit.More here.
But then things unraveled for the mayor: The Free Press published text messages that exposed his lies, County Prosecutor Kym Worthy charged him with eight felonies, and courts ruled that the documents were, in fact, public.
On Thursday, the mayor finally acknowledged his lies, signifying a victory for freedom of the press, the Freedom of Information Act itself, the public's right to know -- and the idea that violating an oath to tell the truth carries severe consequences.
The Free Press also has an interesting article on the three laws that led to Kilpatrick's demise: the Michigan Freedom of Information Act, Whistle-blowers' Protection Act and a shield-type law for Michigan journalists.
Read more here.
Thursday, September 04, 2008
The Times Union sued state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli Wednesday, challenging his refusal to release state payroll data under a public information request.
Attorneys for Hearst Corp., the newspaper's parent company, filed the suit in state Supreme Court in Albany, requesting the data, as well as costs and attorney fees.
In court papers, the newspaper questioned the comptroller's refusal to release payroll information sought earlier this year by J. Robert Port, the Times Union's senior editor for investigations. Port filed a request under the state's Freedom of Information Law, seeking an electronic copy of payroll tables.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences will use a private search firm to help find its next chancellor.
But the University of Arkansas Foundation Inc., not the university, hired the firm to keep applicants’ names private, said B. Alan Sugg, president of the University of Arkansas System.
“The firm will be talking to candidates about the possibility of coming here,” said Sugg, who will serve as chairman of a search advisory committee that includes faculty, health-care executives and corporate leaders.
The Smithsonian Institution should become more open and transparent, but also needs to maintain exceptions to the federal Freedom of Information Act, Secretary G. Wayne Clough said Wednesday after two months as chief executive of the museum complex.More here.
Clough told The Associated Press he opposes an effort in Congress to place the Smithsonian under the government's public records law because the museums on the National Mall will have to look beyond the government to pay for programs in the future. Taxpayer money currently covers about 70 percent of the Smithsonian's $1 billion budget."If the Smithsonian is going to be called upon to do its business in a different way in the future, which we are being asked to do, we're going to have to raise private funds," Clough said. "We're trying to model our policy as close to FOIA as we can with some narrowly cast exceptions."
Open records officials seeking to complete a fee schedule for records requests say a public hearing on Friday will help in trying to make sure all parties involved in the process are treated fairly.More here.
Officials want input on proposed charges for duplicating public records. Right now they are proposing 20 cents for each standard black and white copy and 50 cents for each color copy.
The Office of Open Records Counsel is required to develop the schedule following legislation last session that updates the state's open records law. Those updates are the result of a reform initiative following the 2005 Tennessee Waltz corruption sting that led to convictions of five former state lawmakers.
Wednesday, September 03, 2008
The Watermelon Research and Promotion Act. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. The National Historic Preservation Act and The Civil Rights Act.More here.
These are all laws under which federal agencies withhold information from records requestors.
They do so using a special provision of the Freedom of Information Act that allows federal agencies to withhold information prohibited from disclosure by another federal statute.
Under the Watermelon Research and Promotion Act, for example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has withheld lists of watermelon growers.
Cedar Rapids city officials said address-by-address flood damage data is not public record, despite a federal appeals court ruling last year that said such data is public.
An assistant city attorney in Cedar Rapids said the city denied the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s Freedom of Information request for release of address-by-address damage assessments, citing U.S. privacy law.
The Gazette asked Cedar Rapids City Hall to provide address-by-address information about damage assessments of the 850 homes in the city’s 100-year flood plain.
Time is money. New York's change in its Freedom of Information Law will increase the bill of those requesting electronic public records by charging for an employee's time spent filling the requests.
New Yorkers might get an unpleasant surprise when they ask their government for databases and other types of electronic public records.
Last month, New York quietly changed its Freedom of Information Law to allow government agencies to charge for an employee's time when they fill citizens' requests for electronic records, provided they need to spend more than two hours filling the request.
The agency must supply an estimate of the cost beforehand in order to be able to collect, said Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government. The change, which Gov. David Paterson signed into law in August, benefits governments but could discourage citizens from asking for government records, Freeman said.
Monday, September 01, 2008
Former Appomattox mayor John Wilson and three of six council members exchanged e-mails during the last year discussing upcoming votes related to water issues.
Documents released through a Freedom of Information request from two town residents show that in one instance, Wilson e-mailed three council members advising them to rescind a vote on an issue that passed when now-former council member Steve Lawson was absent.
Acting director of the Virginia Open Government Council Megan Rhyne said that according to a state Supreme Court ruling, e-mail communications between council members is not a violation of open records laws.
Saturday, August 30, 2008
A federal judge has ruled that the First Amendment protects the right of Virginia privacy activist Betty Ostergren to publish the Social Security numbers of public officials on her website. She posted the numbers to protest the Virginia government's policy of posting public real estate records online that included people's Social Security numbers. The decision—and the associated publicity for Ostergren's website—may prompt Virginia politicians to hurry up and fix their own website.More here.
For several years, Virginia has been making the real estate records available for a nominal fee from a commonwealth website. Ostergren, wanting to give public officials a taste of their own medicine, began reproducing the records of legislators and court clerks—Social Security numbers and all—on her website.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
The eligibility issues surrounding prized recruit MarQueis Gray typify the academic question marks associated with the first full recruiting class of Gophers football coach Tim Brewster, according to data obtained by the Star Tribune.
Gray was the centerpiece of a group of 31 February signees that was ranked among the nation's top 20 by several recruiting services. But high-ranking university officials admit it was also a class filled with academic concerns.
The Star Tribune requested college entrance scores for incoming freshman football players from every Big Ten school last summer under the nation's Freedom of Information Act.
Minnesota's freshman class had the lowest scores among the eight Big Ten programs that complied with the request, and the scores were significantly lower than for the recruiting classes in the final years of Glen Mason, who coached the Gophers from 1997 to 2006.
But the DHS is refusing to disclose more details citing a state statute that “Information on a pending [child maltreatment] investigation is confidential and may be disclosed only as provided in this section” — a section that does not include reporters or the general public.
Four children assigned to foster parents by the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) have died in recent months — a shocking number for a state that hasn't had a foster-child death since 2003.
The number came to light thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request to the agency from the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (AACF).
But DHS has refused to release information about the nature of the deaths except to say that two of them are under investigation as maltreatment cases. Even after the State Police made an arrest in one of those cases on Aug. 11, DHS declined to comment further, citing a statute that prevents disclosure of ongoing department investigations.
Which raises the questions: When is DHS justified in withholding information about foster-child deaths? What sort of information should it be able to conceal? Is the public's need to know about the circumstances of the deaths outweighed by DHS's need to complete an investigation before putting details out in the open?
The Times asked DHS for basic information about the deaths: names if available, location and — most importantly — circumstances of death. What caused each child to die? What distinguishes a case that apparently involves child maltreatment from one that doesn't?
Near the end of last semester, the Progress staff got fed up with vast quantities of black ink clouding the police reports we received from the Eastern police department every week. The reports were so heavily redacted we couldn't list names in the police beat without running the risk of libeling someone.
Remedying the situation was tricky because the Progress wasn't formally requesting the reports from the university. Eastern police gave us the reports we used each week as a courtesy, which meant they could remove whatever information they desired before giving them to us. And since formal requests could take weeks to process, our only option was to take the readily available censored reports.
We had to figure out how to end the unnecessary redactions without delaying information to our readers.
In order to determine what the police department was redacting that couldn't be redacted when a formal request was made, we sent a pair of "Freedom Of Information Act" requests to the university, asking for copies of about a week's worth of police reports. When we got these reports, we were surprised to see just as much black ink on the formally requested reports as on the freebies we got from the police department. On some reports, even more information was redacted on the formally requested version.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Like nearly all responsibilities of government, defending the nation's citizens and interests is driven by knowledge. National defense not only requires knowledge of an adversary's intent and capability, but also of the U.S. military's resources and readiness to deter, dissuade, disrupt or defeat the unwanted action by the enemy.
During the past six decades, the Defense Department has developed thousands of information systems to support decision-making. Interconnectivity at the machine-to-machine level of these systems is uneven. As a result, leaders at every level of the Air Force must often rely on manual, labor-intensive processes to obtain information that should be readily available.
At units worldwide, for example, commanders and directors routinely must know their "burn rates," or how quickly they are spending allocated funds, particularly compared with similar units. They must determine variables ranging from whether their people and equipment are ready for deployment to whether discrepancies noted in workplace and housing inspections have been resolved. Yet obtaining routine information reports can be challenging and time-consuming.
The root causes are many. In large organizations, critical data are scattered across components, time zones and information systems. As these pockets of data are connected machine to machine, meaningful information can be extracted across the entire organization. Otherwise, the data assist only a limited few.
Police photographs taken after the so-called D.C. Madam committed suicide can be viewed under the state’s public-records law but are not allowed to be copied or published.
That’s after a judge ruled on the matter on Aug. 15.
In May, 52-year-old Deborah Palfrey hanged herself in a shed outside her mother’s mobile home in Florida. Her mother found the body.
A Freedom of Information Act request can be made by anyone to obtain information from public agencies.
Wow...imagine the market potential of charging $10 per DENIAL.....
The Argus-Press requested information regarding the Law Enforcement Information Network rights of former Corunna Police Officer Angelo Panos. The sheriff's department keeps record of who has LEIN rights within the county.
In Wilson's Aug. 18, two-paragraph denial, he stated, “...internal labor issues are not subject to FOIA. I have no knowledge concerning the details of Mr. Panos' employment issues.”
Wilson sent a letter to Panos Aug. 18 detailing Panos' employment issues. “Chief (Kim) Williams called Lt. (Mike) Ash and advised that you were no longer employed with the City of Corunna,” the letter to Panos reads. “At that time, Lt. Ash requested (Central) Dispatch to remove your LEIN rights.”
Wilson also sent The Argus-Press an invoice for $10 for the FOIA denial.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Two directors of North Dakota's workers compensation agency broke the state's open meetings law by meeting in a restaurant to discuss business without public notice, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said.
Stenehjem, in a legal opinion Monday, said the Workforce Safety and Insurance agency must draft minutes of the illegal meeting and provide a free copy to anyone who asks. Former WSI executive Jim Long, who filed a complaint with Stenehjem about the meeting, must receive a free copy, the opinion says.
Workforce Safety's operations are supervised by an 11-member board of directors. The board also has smaller subcommittees, which report to the full board.
Meetings of the smaller groups and the full board both require public notice under North Dakota's sunshine law, which is triggered if enough committee members show up to allow their respective boards to take votes and make decisions.
Stenehjem said the open meetings law was violated May 21 when Mark Gjovig, the chairman of the full board, and board member Mark Jackson met at a Bismarck restaurant the night before a scheduled meeting of the full board.More here.
A bipartisan pair of prominent attorneys renewed a lawsuit Monday seeking e-mails from Gov. Matt Blunt's office while asserting it has violated Missouri's open-records law.
The amended lawsuit also renews an assertion that someone acting under the control of the governor's office sought to destroy backup e-mail records to avoid complying with a Sunshine Law request by The Associated Press.
The new version of the lawsuit was filed by former Democratic Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell and Republican attorney Louis Leonatti. They were appointed by a Cole County judge as assistant attorneys general on the case after Blunt's office objected to the legal authority of a St. Louis lawyer chosen by Attorney General Jay Nixon...
Last month, Cole County Judge Richard Callahan ruled that Nixon's selected investigator, Mel Fisher, had no legal authority to sue the governor's office on behalf of the attorney general. But the judge subsequently appointed Maxwell and Leonatti to the investigation and delayed the dismissal of the lawsuit to give them time to decide whether to continue or drop the case.
Maxwell, speaking for the duo, said it seemed Fisher's investigation had "been hampered" by the governor's office and its attorneys and determined the case should go forward. They largely adopted the assertions in the original lawsuit filed on behalf of Fisher by St. Louis attorney Chet Pleban.
Friday, August 22, 2008
A glance at the piece reveals some nice arguments:
Where does this leave us? In my view, there is now a significant and growing dissonance between the promises made by our federal right-to-know laws and their performance. Part of the problem, of course, is entrenched resistance by government officials (of both political parties) to giving the public the ability to stand over their shoulders while they do their jobs. People do not want to do their work in a fishbowl. Legislation cannot change human nature. Nor can legislation safeguard access-to-information laws from subversion by administrations hostile to the ideal of openness. But there is much that legislation could do to recalibrate the way our right-toknow laws work in practice. In my view, it is time to overhaul our nation's right-to-know laws in three important ways:First, right-to-know laws should place an affirmative duty on the government to make environmental information available to the public.
The article is here.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Until today, hospital death rates were closely guarded secrets, discussed in board rooms but beyond the reach of patients whose lives are on the line. That changed Wednesday morning when USA Today posted on its Web site the government's best estimates of heart attack, heart failure and pneumonia death rates for every U.S. hospital for two years.
Now anyone with access to a computer can directly compare a local hospital with the one across town to see how it stacks up against the biggest medical institutions nationwide. Death rates from heart attack, heart failure and pneumonia are widely viewed as yardsticks of a hospital's overall performance.
The report is here.
Not much sunshine in Orlando this week because of Tropical Storm Fay.
Not much Sunshine in Tallahassee either due to another tropical storm on the horizon -- a top-secret list of alleged NCAA violations.
The Sunshine we're talking about is the State of Florida's Sunshine Law, which Florida State is once again trying to finagle around amid an academic fraud scandal that has turned into a national embarrassment for the Seminoles and their athletic department.
A quick legal briefing: Our state's Government-in-the-Sunshine law and corresponding Open Records Act provide almost unfettered and timely public access to documents, tapes, photographs and just about everything else generated by state-funded agencies.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
The Texas Department of Public Safety is appealing a court decision that granted the Houston Chronicle and two other newspapers access to travel records filed by members of Gov. Rick Perry's security detail.
Attorney General Greg Abbott's office filed notice of appeal Monday with the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin.
The Chronicle, the San Antonio Express-News and the Austin American-Statesman sued the DPS for refusing to release copies of expense vouchers for troopers' travel with the governor last year and in 2001.
The state contended that releasing the information could endanger the governor, his family and other people traveling with him.
But state District Judge Scott Jenkins questioned that claim and ruled Aug. 1 that the newspapers should be granted access to the records. Attorneys for the newspapers argued that the expense vouchers were "super-public information" that didn't pose a threat to anyone.
Perry usually pays his own travel expenses from political funds, but his bodyguards have spent thousands of taxpayer dollars guarding the governor on trips throughout the U.S. and to several foreign countries.
The newspapers have obtained lump sum amounts of security spending, but the DPS has refused to release expense details.
Sunday, August 17, 2008
It's hard to put into words the impact of Jack Landau on press freedom and freedom of information in the United States, but the Post did a nice job:
Jack Landau, 74, a founder of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, died Aug. 9 of complications from emphysema at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington County. He was a longtime Falls Church resident.
The committee, a Washington-based legal defense and research center for reporters, was created in 1970, when the nation's news media were facing an increasing number of government subpoenas demanding that reporters name confidential sources.
A group of journalists, including Benjamin C. Bradlee of The Washington Post, Mike Wallace of CBS and Tom Wicker of the New York Times, gathered at Georgetown University to discuss the need to provide legal assistance. They formed a committee that initially operated part time.
Mr. Landau, a reporter-lawyer covering the U.S. Supreme Court for Newhouse News Service, was an early member of the steering committee. In his spare time, he also started the First Amendment Hotline, the first free legal guidance service for journalists involved in First Amendment and freedom-of-information issues.
Secrecy could add to the steep cost of Florida's proposed $1.75 billion buyout of U.S. Sugar.Here's the killer quote:
While state water managers held closed-door talks with U.S. Sugar about buying the company's 187,000 acres, Palm Beach County in April approved a U.S. Sugar plan for rock mining right in the middle of the area targeted for Everglades restoration.
The mining approval likely boosted the value of those 7,000 acres, according to appraisers. That could mean taxpayers will end up paying more for a big piece of the buyout, proposed to re-establish water flows between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.
Sugar cane land in that area appraises for about $3,400 to $5,500 an acre, compared with up to $11,000 an acre for rock mines, according to the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser's Office.
"None of us knew anything about it," County Commissioner Burt Aaronson said about the buyout, which was announced in June. "Now they bring up this U.S. Sugar deal. ... It's very confusing to the public and to elected officials."
Saturday, August 16, 2008
The final report will be used to help state leaders navigate upcoming recovery efforts. What it says — largely a product of public input — could play a major role in the amount and types of additional assistance provided to families affected by the flood.
Culver's spokeswoman, Courtney Greene, said the Rebuild Iowa Office will release all drafts of the report on Aug. 25, after a the task force has had time to respond with possible revisions. The public will have time, after that, to recommend revisions and suggestions, she said.
"This office is committed to transparency as it relates to the Rebuild Iowa Office," Greene wrote in a statement.
But key pieces of the report, which was written by a consultant who monitored public meetings, could be altered by the task force before the public has an opportunity to view the document, an open-records advocate said.
John Washburn takes public records seriously. Recently, the 45-year-old computer software tester from Wisconsin decided to take on Texas Gov. Rick Perry over his e-mail retention program -- or lack of one.
Perry's office automatically deletes virtually all its e-mails every seven days, according to the Dallas Morning News.
Washburn, who viewed the retention period as "obnoxiously short," developed a computer program that every four days automatically requests all e-mails sent to and from Perry's office staff. When he received the first batch more than 8,000 e-mails covering four days -- he promptly posted them online.
Friday, August 15, 2008
At the time, the Federal Aviation Administration and Midwest Airlines, owner of the MD-80 charter airliner, said the landing was not forced by an emergency.
ABC News reported Thursday that tower tapes it obtained through a federal Freedom of Information Act request show that the pilot, who was having trouble controlling the pitch of the plane, told an FAA air traffic controller "at this time we would like to declare an emergency and also have CFR (crash equipment) standing by in St. Louis."
The report is available here.
The mayor wants to be notified before city employees talk to the news media.
Mayor Sharon McShurley, in a memorandum distributed yesterday to city and sanitary district employees, said all "public announcements" must be reviewed by her or someone she has designated "to ensure accuracy (and) that it is well written and appropriate for the intended audience."
A union official accused the mayor of trying to restrict free speech, which McShurley denied.
"I can tell you that the intent is not to keep employees from talking to the media," she told the Muncie newspaper, The Star Press. "I think they have a responsibility to let us know if the media is asking for something."
The policy requires employees to notify their immediate supervisors before press interviews and to have supervisors present during interviews "to the maximum extent practicable." Supervisors' role would be to "attest to the accuracy of the interview" and follow up with the news media.