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.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Michigan Court of Appeals Asks Legislature to Update the State's FOIA

In a "friendly" lawsuit set up to determine whether emails from teacher union leaders are public records if they are contained in a school district's computer system, the Michigan Court of Appeals said no, they are not.

The Court also asked the Legislature to clarify and update the state's 33-year old Freedom of Information Act to address electronic records. Judges Mark J. Cavanagh, E. Thomas Fitzgerald and Douglas B. Shapiro wrote that the case presented a "difficult question requiring that we apply a statute, whose purpose is to render government transparent, to a technology that did not exist in reality (or even in many people's imaginations) at the time."

Read more about the decision here.

Proposed Iowa Public Information Board Being Considered

Iowa State Sen. Pam Jochum (D-Dubuque) is proposing a new state agency called the Iowa Public Information Board that would aid citizens with access to public records, assist local governments interpret open records laws, and aid in enforcement if a government agency has violated the law or mediation isn't successful.

Jochum says funding is an issue for the state. She proposes a five-member panel be appointed to outline the agency and the functions of the executive director. The Iowa Freedom of Information Council has offered to cover the $6,000 expenses for the exploratory panel.

Read more about the proposed agency here.

Records Show Who Wanted to be the New USF Football Coach

The Tampa Tribune filed a public records request to find out who applied for the University of South Florida head football coach position after the university dismissed former coach Jim Leavitt.

Although Skip Holtz got the job, records show that the university received materials from coaches all over the country who were interested in the position, but not from Holtz.

Click here to find out who applied for the spot.

Wisconsin Bill Proposes to Remove Certain Court Records from Public Access

A Wisconsin Assembly committee is considering a bill that would remove public access to online information about pending court cases or cases where a person was found innocent or there was no civil liability, including cases where orders or charges are reopened, vacated, set aside or overturned on appeal.

Proponents of the bill say online access to court records creates an opportunity for employers, landlords and others to discriminate against individuals who were accused, but not convicted of any wrongdoing.

Critics say the bill is an insult to the public, and note that the information is publicly-available at the courthouse.

The bill would permit access to the records by judges, court officials, law enforcement officials, attorneys, accredited journalists and bill collectors.

Read more here.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

New Jersey Supreme Court Makes City' Confidential Settlement Public

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that an out-of-court settlement of a sexual harassment lawsuit is a public document. The Asbury Park Press and John Paff of the Open Government Advocacy Project made a request under the state's Open Public Records Act for the settlement document of a lawsuit brought against Monmouth County officials. The Board of Freeholders refused, citing a confidentiality agreement among all parties. The Court rejected those grounds.

Read more here.

Proposed Law Would Extend FOIA Reach to Private Prisons

Congress is considering proposed legislation to extend the Freedom of Information Act to private prisons that contract with government agencies. At present, the companies that run private prisons say they are not subject to FOIA because they are not public agencies.

Read more about H.R. 2450 here.

Connecticut Considers Restricting Inmate Access to Open Records Laws

Connecticut may restrict prison inmates from using open records laws to get personal information to harass or threaten their guards, prosecutors, or other inmates. Washington, Arkansas, Michigan, Virginia, New Jersey, Texas, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Kansas, Alabama, Georgia and Arizona have laws that limit or block inmate access to state open-records laws.

Connecticut prison guards are concerned about the requests of Richard Stevenson, who is serving an 86-year sentence for sexual assault and who is seeking off-duty arrest records for more than 100 guards.

Read more here.

Mississippi Student Faces Costly Hurdles in Public Records Assignment

A journalism student at the University of Mississippi learned how hard and expensive it can be to obtain public records.

The senior attempted to obtain two city budgets from Oxford, Mississippi, but the fees estimates changed from week to week, ranging from $30 to $96.

Click here to read how city officials admitted to charging more for records to slow down the process when the city is "inundated" with requests. Another city official says it receives "about six" requests per year.

Washington Post and Obama Disagree Regarding Administration's Open Government Track Record

The Washington Post reports that 319 lawsuits were filed under the Freedom of Information Act during Obama's tenure in the White House so far, and plaintiffs complain that little has changed since the Bush administration in terms of openness, despite Obama's promise that his administration would be the most open in history. The paper reports that 278 records suits were filed in 2007 and 298 in 2008.

But the White House responded, contradicting the report and saying that 22 fewer FOIA cases were filed in 2009 than 2008, and the Department of Justice has granted 13% more FOIA requests in 2009 than it did during the Bush administration.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Washington Referendum 71 Petition Dispute

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear Doe v. Reed, the case to determine whether the names of Washington voters who signed a ballot petition for Referendum 71 can be made public. The referendum sought to overturn expanded rights for same-sex couples, and supporters of gay rights filed a public records request for the names of those who signed the petition. Referendum sponsors objected, saying the signers would be harassed.

Meanwhile a Washington state legislative committee is considering competing bills over the dispute. One would provide an exemption to the state's Public Records Act for the names and addresses on initiative or referendum petitions; the other would declare them public records.

Read more here.

Virginia Bill Would Add Another FOIA Exemption

A bill pending in the Virginia General Assembly seeks to exempt all records generated by campus threat assessment teams from the state's Freedom of Information Act.

The University of Virginia supports the legislation, saying it would allow teams to discuss potential threats to campus safety openly and would allow campus mental health providers and law enforcement officials to share confidential information.

Open government advocates disagree, cautioning the measure would make it more difficult to hold public officials accountable and identify any gaps in the campus security system if an incident were to occur.

Read more about the proposed bill here.

Monday, January 25, 2010

SEC Treated AIG Bailout Document Like a Matter of National Security

Emails turned over by the New York Federal Reserve to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform reveal that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission originally treated the New York Fed's request to keep secret details of the American International Group (AIG) bailout like a request to protect matters of national security.

Reuters reports that the New York Fed was only comfortable with AIG submitting a bailout-related document tot he SEC after it received assurances that "special security procedures" would be used to handle the document. The SEC also agreed that only two SEC employees would review the document and it would be kept in a locked safe.

For more on the protective measures of the AIG bailout details, click here.

Testing Illinois Localities on FOIA Compliance

The Herald-News did an interesting test of state and local government response times to new Illinois FOIA laws, which took effect January 1. The news organization sent FOIA requests to more than 100 local towns, school districts and counties, seeking information on where taxpayer money is being spent.

Check out the results here and an interactive feature here.

Alaska Judge Rules in Favor of Palin; State Business May Be Conducted through Private Email Accounts

An Alaska judge ruled in favor of former Gov. Sarah Palin in a lawsuit that urged that Palin and the governor's office had a responsibility to save email messages related to state business, even if they were sent through private email accounts.

In the ruling, Judge Patrick J. McKay of Anchorage Superior Court writes that, "The language in our case is clear — the Legislature simply chose to give state agencies some discretion in determining which e-mails are worthy of preservation and which are not." McKay noted that the statutes as currently written allow Alaska's state business to be conducted through private email accounts.

Read more here.

Delaware House Considers Setting a 10-Day Compliance Deadline for State FOIA Requests

Delaware Online reports that a Delaware House committee has approved a bill giving public agencies 10 days to respond to public records requests as a way to help correct existing FOIA law in Delaware that does not set a compliance deadline for FOIA requests.

The bill will be considered by the full Delaware House.

Click here for more information.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Short Documentary Film Traces First Year of Obama's Open Government Initiative

Check out this video from Delib. It's a short documentary about the first year since Obama's Open Government memorandum and features interviews with such insiders as Beth Noveck, Tim O'Reilly, and Jeffrey Levy, among others.

Proposed Law Could Limit Public Information in Mississippi

A Mississippi state representative is proposing a bill to ban businesses and government agencies from sharing personal information about employees, including their work telephone numbers or email addresses, a move that could make Mississippi less responsive to the public.

Read more about House Bill 691 here.

Illinois Police Officer Fell Asleep, Crashing Car Into Home's Foyer

Records released pursuant to a FOIA request reveal that a Wheaton, Illinois police officer fell asleep at the wheel of her squad car in September, causing her to crash the car through the front door of a house at 4 a.m.

Although no one was injured in the accident, the records show the officer said she fell asleep, but woke upon impact and believed she hit the gas pedal, accelerating through the front door.

The unnamed officer faces a possible suspension and disciplinary hearing after the city determines how much it will cost to repair the home. The officer's identity was redacted from records because of a clause in the contract between the union and the department.

Read more here.

Records of Alleged Sexual Assaults by a Former NC Police Officer Ordered to be Released

A Mecklenburg, NC judge has ordered the release of all 911 tapes and police radio communications associated with former Officer Marcus Jackson, who was arrested and fired after several women accused him of sexually assaulting them during traffic stops.

Superior Court Judge Richard Boner ruled the recordings are public records subject to disclosure, and did not find that the release of the recordings would jeopardize the state's prosecution of the former police officer or his right to a fair trial.

For more information, click here.

Federal Agency Datasets Now Available; Interactive Transparency Tracker Marks Progress

Federal agencies have posted nearly 300 new sets of raw data online as part of the Open Government Directive.

Click here for ProPublica's interactive chart, the Transparency Tracker, which provides an independent assessment of the federal agencies' efforts toward more open governmental transparency

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Indiana House Considers Restricting Access to Gun Owner Information

The Indiana House of Representative will consider a bill to restrict access to information about handgun permit holders, including a prohibition against the release of names, addresses, and other information about the gun owners.

More here.

Sen. Kerry Pushes for Release of King Records

Senator John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) has introduced legislation that would require all records relating to the life and death of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to be located, reviewed and released by a National Archives review board. The legislation is part of a larger movement to force the release of information about violence against blacks during the civil rights era, including unsolved lynching and bombing cases.

Read more about it here.

Oklahoma Bill Would Exempt Government Employees' Birth Dates from Public Disclosure

An Oklahoma state legislator has filed a bill that would exempt government employees' birth dates from the state Open Records Act, which critics say would make it virtually impossible to identify state employees and determine if they have committed crimes, avoided taxes, filed for bankruptcy or made political contributions.

The Oklahoman has reported that more than 250 Oklahoma City and Oklahoma County employees match those of registered sex offenders, though the paper isn't able to confirm identities because city and county officials have refused to disclose their employees' birth dates.
The state attorney general recently opined that birth dates are presumed open and may only be withheld on a case-by-case basis upon a showing that the disclosure would amount to an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

Read more about the proposed legislation here.

West Virginia Supreme Court to Hear Important FOIA Case

The West Virginia Supreme Court has made two important decisions regarding FOIA cases.

In one, the Court declined to reconsider its decision not to force the release of former Justice Spike Maynard's email exchange with Massey Energy President Don Blankenship.

In the other, the Court will hear a full appeal of a FOIA case from Jefferson County wherein The Shepherdstown Observer is trying to force the release of persons who signed a zoning petition. The case considers a lower court ruling's that allows state and local agencies to withhold documents that were submitted to them.

Read more here and here.

Virginia Bill Would Block Public Access to Concealed Handgun Records

A Virginia state representative is sponsoring legislation that would prohibit a clerk of court from providing public access to concealed handgun permit applications and information without the written consent of the applicant or permittee.

Currently, individuals records are open for inspection at the courthouse of the locality that issued the permit, but the state does not maintain an electronic database.

Read more about the proposal here.

Illinois Legislators Move to Exempt Teacher Performance Records from Public Disclosure

Illinois legislators passed a bill exempting performance evaluations of teachers and school administrators from public disclosures. Lobbyists for the teachers' unions had urged the change to the sweeping overhaul to the state's FOIA enacted five months ago, contending that performance evaluations are private and their disclosure would interfere with the evaluation process. Open records advocates disagree, saying it's in the public interest to know whether teachers or school administrators are substandard in their performance.

Get more information here.

Proposed Law Would Force Wisconsin's Athletic Association to Comply with Open Government Laws

The Green Bay Press Gazette reports that a proposed bill before Wisconsin's Assembly would prevent public schools from joining athletic associations unless the organizations adhere to state open records and open meetings laws.

Read more about it here and an editorial here.

Washington Open Records Office Gains Gubernatorial Support

Washington Governor Chris Gregoire says she supports the creation of a new Office of Open Records, but doubts that it can happen this year given the state's $2.6 billion budget deficit. The proposed Office of Open Records would serve as a dispute resolution center for open government issues. While Gregoire said the proposed office's $1.3 million price tag is too steep for the state now, she said state and local governments should be given more training on open government laws.

Read more here.

CREW Files Suit to Obtain SEC Reform Documents

The legal watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington ("CREW"), filed a lawsuit seeking a court order that would require the SEC to provide documents the organization sought under FOIA on October 6. The group seeks records showing that the agency has implemented promised reforms in the wake of the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme.

The SEC says it has not yet provided the records because of the voluminous requests, but a spokesperson says they expect to release documents regarding the reforms later in January.

Get more information here.

Georgia State Attorney General's Office Requests Criminal Investigation of Former DOT Treasurer

The Georgia state attorney general's office has asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to conduct a criminal investigation of former DOT treasurer Earl Mahfuz. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained the October 28, 2009 letter seeking the GBI investigation through a Georgia Open Records Act request.

The letter asks the GBI to determine whether Mahfuz instructed DOT employees to stop recording contracts before the end of fiscal year 2008 and whether Mahfuz lied to investigators about the unrecorded contacts, which total $153.4 million.

Read more here.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Nice look at federal secrcey from an FOI warrior

Jon Wiener, the author of, among other books, "Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files," wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Friday, January 08, 2010

New Vick Dogfighting Docs Released

The United States Department of Agriculture, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by WSBTV.COM, has released hundreds of pages of new evidence in its high-profile investigation of NFL quarterback Michael Vick.The newly released documents include summaries of interrogations conducted by federal investigators with member of Vick's dogfighting ring and with confidential informants in the case.

Story here.

The Robert Jackson Steering Committee Seeks Bush-Era Legal Memoranda Regarding Torture

On Thursday, January 7, an organization of attorneys, journalists and advocates filed a FOIA request for the DOJ's Office of Professional Responsibility's report regarding the conduct of President Bush's top lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel who authored memoranda purporting to authorize torture and aggressive war. The request also seeks a 10-page rebuttal of the 2008 report by then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

See the request and transmittal letter here.

Columbia Journalism Review Rates Obama's First Year on Transparency Issues

The Columbia Journalism Review has issued its report card on Obama's first year in office, grading him on transparency and access issues and finding there's still plenty of work to be done.

Click here to see Obama's marks on use of the state secrets privilege, FOIA, the Open Government Directive, online data, White House Visitor Records, a journalist's shield law, and background briefings.

Palin Used Personal E-Mail Account for Public Business

The Alaska Dispatch has published a two-part series on former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's attempt to divide her public and personal life by using two different email addresses while in office. Except, it turns out the dividing line wasn't so clear-cut; for example, she discussed hiring for public positions with other government officials on the Yahoo e-mail account because "everyone and their mother will be able to read emails that arrive via that state address."

For more, click here.

Pressure Builds to Make Secret Chemicals Known

The Washington Post reports lawmakers are facing pressure to make it more difficult for manufacturers to keep chemical compounds a secret. Under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, manufacturers must report new chemicals they intend to market to the federal government, but the law exempts from public disclosure any information that could be considered trade secrets. Practically speaking, that means 20 percent of the 84,000 chemicals in commercial use in the United States are kept secret.

Critics, including the Obama administration, say consumers should know what toxic substances they might be exposed to. Congress is expected to rewrite chemical regulations this year.

For more information, click here.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Federal Agencies Need Not Confirm or Deny Electronic Surveillance under FOIA

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed that the National Security Agency and the Department of Justice do not need to confirm or deny the existence of electronic surveillance records under FOIA. The appellate court found that federal agencies are allowed to file "Glomar" responses, which were first judicially recognized in 1976 and grant an agency express refusal to even confirm or deny the existence of any records responsive to a FOIA request in the national security context.

The lawsuit was brought by advocates for former Guantanamo Bay detainees after the agencies invoked FOIA exceptions to information request regarding warrantless electronic surveillance conducted by the Terrorist Surveillance Program.

Get more particulars here.

Federal Law Restricts Public Access to Gun Shop Inspection Records

As part of its investigation into the West Milwaukee gun store known as Badger Guns & Ammo, Badger Outdoors and Badger Guns, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has sought records to determine the compliance history of these gun dealers whose guns were used to wound six officers in Milwaukee over the past two years.

But the papers efforts have been stymied by a law that strictly limits what information the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives can release on gun shop inspections. The law requires heavy redaction of inspection documents and a limit of the ATF's release of gun trace data.

Read more about the law's effect on law enforcement here.

Posts Made on Social Networking Sites Are Public Records

Wisconsin Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen issued an opinion in which he states that electronic communications made by elected officials are public records, even when they are posted on social networking site. Van Hollen states that the Wisconsin Public Records laws applies whenever the content is connected to the official's purpose or function.

Get more info here.

Contracts Obtained by FOIA Requests Show Football Coaches Rewarded for Performance, Not Academic, Successes

No surprise here. The San Francisco Chronicle obtained contracts from 70 public universities playing big-time football to see how "performance-based" bonuses compared to bonuses given to coaches for their players' academic achievement. On the whole, the paper found that the contracts are quite specific in the monetary rewards of winning on the field, but are much more vague when it comes to academic achievement bonuses.

For specifics on the contracts, including the coaches of University of Florida and UCLA, click here.

Monday, January 04, 2010

New Knight Foundation Grant to Fund FOI Advocacy

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has approved a new $2 million, three-year grant to the National Freedom of Information Coalition to launch the Knight FOI Fund and support state open government groups.

In light of the declining levels of FOI advocacy due to the economic crisis and the evolution of the news media, the Knight FOI Fund will fund litigation costs, such as filing fees, deposition costs, and initial consultation fees, if attorneys are willing to take cases that otherwise would go unfiled. Additionally, the NFOIC will offer sustainability and project grants for state FOI coalitions, with a call for new grants to be made in the spring of 2010.

Read more information about the Knight FOI Fund and the underlying need for the new funding here and here.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Obama Issues New Executive Order for Classified Documents

President Obama's recent executive order and accompanying presidential memorandum declares that "no information may remain classified indefinitely." The executive order is part of an overhaul of the executive branch's system for protecting classified national security information.

The executive order requires agency heads to conduct a periodic review of the agency's classification guidelines to ensure that classified information that no longer requires protection can be declassified.

Obama also eliminated a 2003 rule by the Bush administration that allowed the leader of the intelligence community to veto decisions by an interagency panel to declassify information. Under the Obama rule, spy agencies who object to a decision will have to appeal to the president.

Obama also established a new National Declassification Center at the National Archives to streamline the process of declassifying historical documents and set a four-year deadline for processing a 400-million page backlog of such records, including archives relating to military operations during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

For more information, see the New York Times article here.