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.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The King of Pop's FBI Files

In response to a FOIA request by several news organizations, the FBI released more than 300 pages of its file on the late pop star, Michael Jackson, which detail its investigation into charges of child molestation against the singer in 1993 and 2004 as well as extortion threats made against Jackson in 1992.

Read more, here.

Judge Orders NYPD to Release Racial Data of Persons Under Police Gunfire from 1997 to 2006

Ruling on a case filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union in 2008, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Joan Madden ordered the NYPD to turn over the racial breakdown of all people shot at by police officers between 1997 and 2006.

The NYPD had agreed to release racial breakdown of those injured by police gunfire, but not data about those who were shot at but not hit.

For more information, click here.

Illinois Attorney General Names New Public Access Counselor in Advance of Revised FOIA Effective Date

Cara Smith, deputy chief of staff for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, will be the agency's new public access counselor to enforce the state Freedom of Information Act, revisions to which will take effect on January 1, 2010.

The revised FOIA includes fines for failure to comply with the law and tighter deadlines for government to respond to FOIA requests.

Click here for more on the new revisions to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Attempting to Examine the Relationships Between Drug Companies, Medical Device Makers, and Med Schools

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and reporter John Fauber have filed suit against the University of Wisconsin's medical school and its supporting foundation for violating the state's public records laws. The lawsuit alleges that the school and foundation have wrongfully refused to release faculty comments about a proposed conflict-of-interest policy.

The institutions have refused to provide the faculty comments on the ground that they were not public records, and even if they were, there was a greater public interest in keeping them secret than in disclosing them.

Critics contend that the money drug and medical-device companies pay to doctors and medical school lead to higher health care costs.

For more information, click here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Journalism Students Pleased with Attorney General's Response

In April, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee journalism students filed a request with Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen regarding the applicability of the public records and open meetings law to student governments in the University of Wisconsin System. They say they are pleased with the Attorney General's response, which concludes that a student government organization is subject to the requirements of Wisconsin's open meetings law under certain circumstances.

Proposed Federal Legislation to Protect Petition and Free Speech

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) has introduced the Citizen Participation Act of 2009, H.R. 4364, which encourages civic engagement and protects against meritless lawsuits brought against those who petition the government or speak out on a public issue. If someone is sued without merit for exercising his or her First Amendment rights, the bill would allow the defendant to have the lawsuit dismissed and recover attorney's fees.

Get more information about the bill here and a link to the bill here.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Oregon Attorney General John Kroger has appointed an attorney to be a full-time public records chief who will develop a statewide standard for releasing government documents, and instead of requiring a $25 fee, Kroger has placed a citizens guide to using public records law and the Attorney General's Public Records and Meetings Manual online. These moves signal greater efforts to improved government transparency.

But, at the same time, Kroger has also signaled his office will no longer confirm or deny open investigations on civil matters involving businesses accused of consumer fraud.

For more information, click here.

USA Today Investigation Shows Norovirus Sickened 7500 Children Since 1998

A USA Today investigation found that the norovirus is the most sickening food-borne illness for schoolchildren, and it is most often spread through improper food handling in cafeterias. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show that norovirus caused about 7,500 children to be sick from food-borne illness from 1998 to 2007 with more than 8,500 failing to have their kitchens inspected last year.

For more details, click here.

What French Toast Has to do with FL Commuter Rail Negotiations

A Florida state representative says the Department of Transportation used food names, like "pancakes" and "French toast" as the subject line in emails about the state's commuter rail negotiations in order to foil public records requests.

The DOT head counters, saying the food names were used simply to get his attention. But critics are skeptical, asserting that the DOT officials were actively circumventing transparency laws.

For more on the scandal, click here.

AP Asks West Virginia Supreme Court to Rehear Email Dispute

The Associated Press has filed a request for rehearing of a November ruling that decided a former justice's emails to a coal company executive were not subject to West Virginia's Freedom of Information Act.

The AP's petition asks the Court to reverse its opinion and rehear the case because the state's FOIA law should be liberally applied. "The dreadful message sent by this Court's opinion is that questions about a judge's impartiality are none of the public's business," the AP filing states. "To suggest that such records are non of the public's business is not just wrong factually and legally, it is bad public policy."

For more information, click here.

FOIA Request Shows FBI Scrutinized John Hope Franklin

TPMmuckraker obtained the FBI file for the late John Hope Franklin, which reveal the FBI scrutinized the historian in the 1960s for supposed ties to communists, his opposition to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and his support for W.E.B. Du Bois. Franklin was 94 when he died in May. Franklin authored the classic work From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans.

The FBI file is comprised mainly of background checks when he was up for presidential appointments. The FBI withheld 18 pages of the 515-page file.

For more information and an excerpt of the historian's file, click here.

Redaction Run Amok!

The Puget Sound Business Journal has been seeking internal communications between Washington Mutual (WaMu) and federal regulators, including the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC).

Of interest are internal emails, which the news organization hopes will help explain why regulators seized the bank in September 2008 even though WaMu appeared to meet regulatory standards for operating banks.

The results of the FOIA requests have been less than forthcoming. OTS denied the request in full, citing FOIA exemptions that protect records concerning the operations of financial institutions and to protect inter-agency communication. Meanwhile, the FDIC produced emails, but they were so heavily redacted as to be meaningless. In doing so, the FDIC relied on FOIA exemption 8, which allows the government to redact information related to the regulation or supervision of financial institutions.

To see the emails, click here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Millions of Bush Administration E-mails Found

The AP reports that computer technicians found 22 million missing White House e-mails from the George W. Bush administration as part of litigation brought against the Executive Office of the President in 2007 by two private groups - Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the National Security Archive. The two groups alleged the Bush White House failed to install an electronic record-keeping system.

Before the emails are released to the public, the National Archives will have to process the records for release. The records won't be available until 2014 at the earliest.

For more details regarding the e-mail discovery, click here.

Investigation into Use of Confiscated World Series Tickets to be Public

Writing that, "if anyone should obey the law, the Metropolitan Police Department should," a judge in St. Louis order the Board of Commissioners to release records of the investigation of police officers who let family and friends use dozens of 2006 World Series tickets that had been confiscated from scalpers. Circuit Judge Philip D. Heagney said the board ignored open records laws and court decisions.

Heagney rejected the arguments of the police lawyers that the report should be kept from public scrutiny because it did not involve criminal activity, only personnel issues exempt under the law.

For more regarding the decision and the disciplinary actions taken against the police officers, click here.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Pennsylvania Judge Says Addresses Don't Need to be Released in Emergency Logs

A York County, Pennsylvania judge ruled that the county could refuse to release addresses in emergency time response logs and still comply with the commonwealth's Right-to-Know law. In making his ruling, President Judge Richard K. Renn noted that the citizen's privacy concerns were compelling, particularly in an emergency situation. The York Daily Record/Sunday News requested time response logs in order to audit emergency response times.

Click here for the judge's opinion and here for some community response.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

High Speed Chase Video Obtained by FOIA Request

Watch this video obtained by 24 Hour News 8 through a FOIA request of a high-speed crash involving a Michigan State Police trooper on September 19 when the trooper was trying to pull over a speeding motorcyclist.

Open Government Foes Argue Freedom of Speech is Protected Best by Secrecy

Three Texas cities and the Texas Municipal League have endorsed a legal challenge to Texas' Open Meetings Act, claiming the law unconstitutionally restricts their freedom of speech. The Texas Municipal League also passed a resolution to support changes that would lessen the penalties for violations of the open meetings act.

Critics point out, of course, that government officials enjoy freedom of speech under the state law, but simply must say it in front of the public at an open meeting when they are part of a quorum of a governmental body.

Click here for more.

Delaware Representative Wants Quicker FOIA Responses

A Delaware state representative has pre-filed a bill designed to ensure timely responses to FOIA requests. House Bill 300 would establish a deadline of 10 business days for government agencies and public entities to respond to FOIA requests.

Click here for more, including an audio report.

Federal Media Shield Bill Advances

The Senate Judiciary Committee cleared the media shield bill, a bill to protect reporters' confidential sources in federal court, except in cases of national security.

The bill defines journalists broadly, including bloggers, citizen journalists and freelancers.

For more information, click here.

NJ School Board Members Need to Take it Outside

An attorney advising the Pequannock, NJ school board opined that using a cell phone or PDA to communicate during meetings could violate the state's Open Public Meetings Act, saying such messaging is "probably a violation of the spirit and intent" of the law. The attorney has asked school board members to step outside the board room to use their cell phones or PDAs if they need to use them during meetings.

Get the full story here.

Open Government Initiative's Progress Report

The White House's Open Government Initiative published this post with a link to its Progress Report on Open Government to the American People regarding the Obama administration's goal to increase government transparency, participation, and collaboration. Check it out - it's quite good, actually.

NY Sheriff's Office Charges for Inaccurate Records

The Onondaga County Sheriff's Office in New York has found itself amidst a bit of controversy after a retired state trooper was denied a job as a volunteer mentor in Syracuse schools because the county sheriff's background check turned up a 33-year-old arrest for shoplifting, even though the case was forever sealed by a judge.

The Sheriff's Office admits that its records rarely show the court disposition of charges. In addition to being inaccurate, the records cost $10 to obtain. Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government says the Sheriff shouldn't charge for these public records, except for copying costs.

For more information, click here.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Obama Administration Releases Open Government Directive

This morning, the Obama administration released its Open Government Directive, which calls for "transparency, participation and collaboration" by all federal departments and agencies. It seeks to "create and institutionalize a culture of open government."

The initiative directs the governmental departments and agencies with specific requirements and deadlines. It will allow the public to soon have immediate access to all sorts of federal information and will provide for public feedback on the quality of information provided.

See the Directive here.

Click for more views and commentary.

Disclosure of Concealed-Handgun Permits Weighed by Oregon Court of Appeals

Attorneys have argued the case pending before the Oregon Court of Appeals to decide whether Oregon's sheriffs must disclose the holder of concealed-handgun permits under the state's public records law. The lower court ruled in favor of the newspaper and openness of public records. There is no deadline for the court to render its decision.

The case stems from the Mail Tribune's request to obtain the list of people with concealed-handgun permits in 2007. The Jackson County sheriff refused to make the records public, arguing that privacy concerns weighed against disclosure. An attorney for the sheriff said he was asserting a right of privacy for the permit holders, asserting it may be "stigmatizing" for permit holders to have that information made public.

The Mail Tribune's attorney disagrees and argues that the concealed-handgun permit form at the time contained an acknowledgement that the information was subject to state public records law.

Click here for more info.

Oklahoma Attorney General Opinion Leaves Agencies with Discretion to Release Employees' Birth Dates

Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson has released an opinion that leaves it to government agencies to decide whether to release public employees' birth dates. The opinion states government agencies have the discretion to determine whether the release of an employee's birth date falls within the exemption to the state's Open Records Act that allows records to be kept confidential if releasing them would be an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

The opinion came in response to Oklahoma City's refusal to release the birth date of the city's Weed and Seed program director, Ed Martin, who was placed on administrative leave after city officials found federal grant funds had been mismanaged. The Oklahoman, arguing it is impossible to match common names without a birth date, sought Martin's birth date in order to conduct background research after he was identified as part of the investigation.

For more information, click here.

What a "Presumption of Openness" Means

The Janesville Gazette in Wisconsin reports it battled with the Rock County corporate counsel, Jeff Kuglitsch, to obtain documents related to the resignation of former Human Resources Director John Becker. Yet it took the newspaper two months and four letters to obtain the documents, which were sitting in Kuglitsch's office the whole time.

Attorney Robert Dreps with the Wisconsin Newspaper Association was outraged when he learned of the tactics used to respond to the newspaper's records request, calling them "semantics" and noting, "Open records law provisions aren't determined by where you put the document or what you call it."

For his part, Kuglitsch maintains he followed the law.

Examining the Breadth of Sunshine in the Sunshine State

A Florida representative has asked the state attorney general to determine if a regional economic development organization is subject to the state's open records and meeting laws.

Florida's Great Northwest, an economic development group designed to push workforce development in 16 northwest Florida counties, was not created by law or public agency, but it does receive federal and state money. The group maintains that it is exempt from the open meeting and open records law.

For more information, click here.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Social Research Conference: February 24 - 26, 2010

The New School in New York City will host a social research conference, Limiting Knowledge in a Democracy, on February 24, 25, and 26. The conference will investigate how our government and other institutions organize, fund, restrict, facilitate or affect the flow of knowledge, and examine how limits may support or undermine democracy. The conference will begin with a keynote address by Seymour Hersch.

For more information, click here.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

FOIA Request Reveals How a School Lunch Program Ordered Recalled Tainted Beef

The USA Today obtained through FOIA that raises questions regarding whether the government took adequate steps to ensure meat purchased for schoolchildren is safe. During a recall of ground beef products made at Beef Packers Inc. from June 5 to June 23, four orders were produced for the National School Lunch Program.

Get the full report here.

Lawsuit Asks Government How it Cyber-Stalks

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and UC Berkeley's Samuelson Center has sued a number of federal agencies to force them to release documents regarding the use of social networking sites, like YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, as part of investigative procedures.

The FOIA requests seek manuals on the procedures for accessing social sites, policies for creating fake identities, and software used to analyze data harvested.

Read more here.

Open Records Advocate Says He Knows How to Save the Government Billions

Open records advocate Carl Malamud obtained information through a FOIA request showing that the Department of Justice paid more than $4 million in 2009 and the IRS paid nearly $1 million in 2008 for access to the federal court's electronic filing system, which is composed entirely of documents in the public domain. Malamud says an open source repository of U.S. legal materials could save the government billions of dollars.

Malamud has filed 34 requests with federal agencies and is preparing to file another 100 to offices in the executive branch as part of his campaign to make court records available in bulk.

The federal courts search system known as Public Access to Court Electronic Records, or PACER, charges $.08 per page to look at federal court filings (excluding tax courts and the Supreme Court) and pulled in nearly $50 million in 2006. The system does not allow for bulk download.

For more information about Malamud's campaign, click here.

Former Arizona Diamondbacks Pitcher's Wife Died of a Cocaine Overdose

An Arizona Court of Appeals disclosed the cause of death for former Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Scott Schoeneweis' wife in a ruling on whether an autopsy report and other records must be disclosed under Arizona's public records law.

Gabrielle Schoeneweis was found dead on May 20 in the couple's suburban Phoenix home. Her death was caused by an overdose of cocaine and an anesthetic, lidocaine.

Read more about it here.

High Copying Costs Thwart Open Public Records Act Goals

The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government says outmoded copying fees are exorbitant in light of technological advances that make copying easier, faster, and cheaper than in years past, and that such fees present a real deterrent to the open government goals espoused in the Open Public Records Act.

The current fees are at least 75 cents per page for the first 10 pages, 50 cents per page for the next 10 pages, and 25 cents per page for additional pages. While litigants can petition for a fee reduction on a case-by-case basis, open government advocates urge the NJ Legislature to lower the fees by statute.

For more information, click here.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Remembering Mark Pittman

Mark Pittman, an award-wining reporter, died tragically November 25 at age 52.

Pittman was a true freedom of information warrior. He pushed to open the Federal Reserve to more scrutiny. Thanks to the work of Pittman and his colleague, Craig Torres for seeking the information, in August, Bloomberg won a lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan requiring the Federal Reserve to release the names of the entities to which it has lent money. That decision is still being appealed.

Click here for remembrances by Pittman's colleagues.

Obama Delays Release of Historic Military and Intelligence Reports

Despite pledging to expand governmental transparency, President Obama has granted an open-ended extension to agencies for releasing millions of pages of military and intelligence documents that were scheduled to be declassified by the end of the year.

The documents date from World War II to the early 1980s and cover foreign relations, intelligence activities and military operations with the exception of nuclear weapons data.

The Boston Globe reports Obama delayed the release of the historic documents because his administration has been unable to prod spy agencies into conformance with agencies "engaged in turf battles over how documents should be evaluated" and have reviewed only a fraction of the materials to determine if their release would jeopardize national security.

Get more information here.

Pennsylvania Enjoys Signal Improvement on its Right-to-Know Law Anniversary

As the one-year anniversary of Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law approaches, open records advocates are hailing the improvements the Commonwealth has made under the new law.

The new law provides a first-stage appeal with the taxpayer-funded open records office, whose lawyers issue binding opinions. It also established a new presumption in the law that almost all records are open unless the government proves otherwise.

While the improvements are being praised, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette notes there have also been criticism of some rulings the office acknowledged as mistakes, tensions with the Governor's administration, budget cut fears, and concerns that the new process is bogging down instead of speeding up the process.

Learn more here.