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.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Delaware Bill Would Make Legislature FOIA-able

DELAWARE BILL WOULD OPEN LEG RECORDS: Republican lawmakers today unveiled new legislation to make the General Assembly subject to Delaware's Freedom of Information Act, although the bill carries no penalties for noncompliance.

In other "good government" proposals, G-O-P legislators presented a bill requiring candidates for public office to disclose any delinquencies on taxes or child support obligations, and proposed that live audio webcasts of House proceedings be carried on the General Assembly's Web site.

The bills were unveiled amid heightened scrutiny of legislative ethics and the secrecy with which the General Assembly now operates, including closed-door discussions of budget bills.

New FOIA Report Card Is Grim....

Fuel for the fire of FOIA reform....

Back in December of 2005 with the White House coming under increasing criticism for its secrecy, President George W. Bush ordered federal agencies to speed up their responses to requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

A new FOIA report card by a coalition of journalists groups makes it clear that Bush's directive did not produce a "surge" in the response rate by the agencies.

The study by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government concludes the Bush directive did nothing to speed up responses by agencies that have been systematically cutting back the personnel assigned to FOIA work, even as backlogs of requests grow and the cost of fulfilling requests increases.

"Requests remain heavily backlogged," the study says. "Requesters still have long wait times for a response from many agencies. And people seeking records and information remain less likely to get the information they seek than in the past."

The coalition assembled the FOIA performance reports from 15 Cabinet-level departments and 15 agencies dating back to 1998, when agency reporting was first required. The 13 agencies that had reported 2006 performance by Feb. 9 were also included in the study.

Overall, the groups said, FOIA performance remains at the lowest point since 1998.

One of the biggest problem is the growing backlog of requests. In 2005, the overall backlog was a record 31% of the requests, a percentage that was 138% above the 1998 level. And the agencies that have so far reported 2006 results are showing an even higher average backlog, the coalition said.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Here is a model worth looking into...

Open Congress is a brand-new project of the Sunlight Foundation and the Participatory Politics Foundation -- kind of a MySpace for legislation, or a Digg.com for Congress, if you will...

Check it out -- it's an amazing new participatory device, one that tracks all legislation, news about legislation, news on Congress the institution, and much more.


Monday, February 26, 2007

Official Secrets Act is Back...

Well, a demon from the not-so-distant past has reared its ugly head again...


There's a new effort to create an Official Secrets Act, and this one is even more dangerous than Sen. Kit Bond's effort in the last session. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-AZ, plans to introduce an amendment to a totally unrelated bill when it goes to committee markup on Thursday. That bill, S 236, deals with data mining and has nothing to do with classified information

Kyl proposes to expand Section 798 of the Espionage Act of 1917 to make it a criminal act to communicate or publish any classified information "concerning efforts by the United States to identify, investigate, or prevent terrorist activity" and expand the penalty to 20 years in prison.

That's about as broad and vague as a piece of legislation can be. It would give the government tremendous power to silence its critics and to limit the debate and discussion on the techniques it elects to use in the war on terror.


The proposed amendment would change 18 U.S.C. Sec. 798(a) to read as follows (Changes in boldface)

TITLE 18, PART I, CHAPTER 37 § 798

§ 798. Disclosure of classified information
(a) Whoever knowingly and willfully communicates, furnishes, transmits, or otherwise makes available to an unauthorized person, or publishes, or uses in any manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States or for the benefit of any foreign government to the detriment of the United States any classified information—
(1) concerning the nature, preparation, or use of any code, cipher, or cryptographic system of the United States or any foreign government; or
(2) concerning the design, construction, use, maintenance, or repair of any device, apparatus, or appliance used or prepared or planned for use by the United States or any foreign government for cryptographic or communication intelligence purposes; or
(3) concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government; or
(4) obtained by the processes of communication intelligence from the communications of any foreign government, knowing the same to have been obtained by such processes or
(5) concerning efforts by the United States to identify, investigate, or prevent terrorist activity” and shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both.


This is a cheap imitation of the British "Official Secrets Act," and a poorly written one, at that. It criminalizes any disclosure of classified information, regardless of lack of intent, even lack of knowledge that the information was classified, and contains no recognition of any public interest in such disclsoures. The community of press freedom advocates -- and the institutional press of the United States -- should fight this as hard as they can. It is a disastrous idea.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

FOI at work...

The Columbus Dispatch takes a look at school bus driver safety, thanks to FOI...

The state handed Robert R. Casey a license two months ago to drive a big yellow school bus and collect kids in Cambridge.

The 49-year-old had been convicted nine times for driving under the influence of alcohol, and once for public intoxication, between 1980 and 1990.

Anton Mantz, 50, has ushered schoolchildren around Newark since 1996. His six DUIs and a drug-abuse conviction from the 1980s went undetected.

In Bridgeport, along the Ohio River in Belmont County, John Knight, 36, is a substitute driver with a record that includes five DUIs, two of them as recent as 2003 and 2004.

"That’s ridiculous," said Doug Scoles, executive director of the central Ohio chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "That should be a red flag for the citizens of Ohio."

The safety of thousands of Ohio schoolchildren has been entrusted to more than 150 bus drivers with histories of drunken driving or drug abuse, a Dispatch investigation found.

The near-universal reaction of school officials when informed that they had hired drivers with checkered pasts: "We didn’t know."

State laws, practice and policies make it virtually impossible for school officials to review complete driving histories maintained by the state.

The shortcomings have placed more than 150 schoolbus drivers on the road who might otherwise have been barred from delivering children between their homes and classrooms.

The Dispatch checked the driving records of school-bus drivers in 36 counties in central, eastern and southeastern Ohio. The newspaper examined public records from municipal courts, the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles and Nexis, a subscription service that collects public records across the country.

The newspaper found 167 drivers with DUI or drug-related license suspensions who drive, or drove recently, for 106 school districts, schools for the developmentally disabled and Head Start programs.

The majority have one drunken-driving conviction, most before 2000. But six drivers have three DUI convictions, and 14 have been nailed twice. The records of six other drivers reflect drug-related license suspensions.

The newspaper compared driving records to a state database that listed the names of bus drivers, as submitted by school districts last summer...

Friday, February 23, 2007

Minnesota Coalition, Blog now online

We're pleased to see that the Minnesota Coalition's web site is now looking quite lovely, and they have a blog, too!

Minnesota is in the process of revitalizing a pre-existing FOI group into an NFOIC-style coalition, and we applaud their progress!


Thursday, February 15, 2007

FOI Summit 2007: Seattle!

We've put together one heck of a show for you in Seattle -- FOI Central from May 11-12!

All the information is now online at our web site....

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A cool new effort at Congressional sunshine...

From the Sunlight Foundation:

Today, the Sunlight Foundation is announcing the creation of the Open House Project, a collaborative and bipartisan effort on open government. The purpose of the project is to study how the House of Representatives currently integrates the internet into its operations, and to make public recommendations to its leadership on how to make the House of Representatives’ work more available to citizens on the Web.

“The Internet is an incredible vehicle for transparency, honest leadership and open government,” said Speaker Pelosi, in response to the project’s launch. “I am encouraged by this working group and look forward to recommendations on how the House can be as open and accessible to citizens as possible.”

The Open House Project working group will meet online via list-serv, blog and wiki. It is being led by Matt Stoller (of MyDD.com) and John Wonderlich (lead coordinator of the Congressional Committees Project on DailyKos) with Sunlight’s senior strategists Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry providing ongoing support.

The group, which includes renowned technologist Clay Shirky, Bush/Cheney 2004 eCampaign Director Mike Turk, Govtrack creator Joshua Tauberer, and leading blogger Markos Moulitsas-Zuniga of the Daily Kos, will be regularly consulting leaders in congressional process and the Internet as well as civically engaged citizens for their assistance in creating consensus on short-term reforms that can be implemented in the House. Expertise and research on many different aspects of Congress—ranging from video content, committee documents, and legislative support agencies, to lobbyist disclosure, and the use of structured information—will be integrated into a report to be presented to the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in March.

A great idea. And some really interesting people involved.

FOI AT WORK: The Rehnquist Files

If you haven't seen it yet, Slate's Hot Document feature is a riveting look at a record unveiled from the dark recesses of government -- and FOIA almost always plays a key role. Today's offering:

The memos, released recently under the Freedom of Information Act, were written prior to the late jurist's Senate confirmation as associate justice of the Supreme Court in 1971 and as chief justice in 1986. (For previous Rehnquist "Hot Documents" gleaned from the release, see here and here.)

Today's memo (see below and on the following 11 pages) preceeded Rehnquist's first Senate confirmation. It addressed the question of whether Rehnquist, who was then working in President Richard Nixon's Justice Department, was a racist. That the issue even had to be raised gives you some sense of how abysmal Rehnquist's civil rights record was.

It's a heck of a read.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Post-Katrina Analysis, Thanks to FOIA

FOI AT WORK: In the neighborhood President Bush visited right after Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. government gave $84.5 million to more than 10,000 households. But Census figures show fewer than 8,000 homes existed there at the time.

Now the government wants back a lot of the money it disbursed across the region.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration has determined nearly 70,000 Louisiana households improperly received $309.1 million in grants, and officials acknowledge those numbers are likely to grow.

In the chaotic period after two deadly hurricanes, Katrina and Rita, slammed the Gulf Coast in 2005 Katrina making landfall in late August, followed by Rita in late September federal officials scrambled to provide help in hard-hit areas such as submerged neighborhoods near the French Quarter.

But an Associated Press analysis of government data obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act suggests the government might not have been careful enough with its checkbook as it gave out nearly $5.3 billion in aid to storm victims. The analysis found the government regularly gave money to more homes in some neighborhoods than the number of homes that actually existed.

The pattern was repeated in nearly 100 neighborhoods damaged by the hurricanes. At least 162,750 homes that didn't exist before the storms may have received a total of more than $1 billion in improper or illegal payments, the AP found.

The AP analysis discovered the government made more home grants than the number of homes in one of every five neighborhoods in the wake of Katrina. After Rita roared ashore, there were more home grants than homes in one of every 10 neighborhoods.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A Troubling Idea....

From today's Yankton, South Dakota Press & Dakotan:

The cause of open government took a potential step backward Monday when House Bill 1201 advanced in Pierre.

The bill, which passed the House 60-7 and now moves to the Senate, creates an opening in South Dakota's open meeting laws by allowing two or more governing boards to meet in order to "provide information" or "observe" proceedings. According to the provision, if a quorum of members are present (or involved in a teleconference) for such a purpose, "it does not constitute an official meeting," therefore requires no public notice or agenda.

This is a bothersome development in the current atmosphere, in which many school districts are exploring the idea of consolidating or sharing services with neighboring districts. If HB1201 becomes law, the members of two boards could meet without the public's prior knowledge and away from media scrutiny. It would have impacts on other board and commission proceedings, too.

Look for this one to start making the rounds, as our elected leaders tell us that they are just saving time and money...plus, no one really cares if they get together and "provide information" without notice or public attendance, do they? Of course not! Heck, why burden our public officials with all of these onerous rules....

Broad theme here: "Trust Us."

Not this old boy....

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A Huge Victory in Libby Case...

A huge victory for openness in the Libby trial. This was a courageous decision, even if it was a slam-dunk legally.

From Editor & Publisher:

News organizations praised a judge's decision Monday to release tapes of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter'' Libby's grand jury testimony, saying it would open a window into court proceedings.

U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said he would make public the eight-hour recordings, which were played in open court as part of the Libby trial, even though he was worried that jurors could be influenced by outside media buzz.

Federal law supports the public release of evidence presented to a jury. But judges in high-profile cases occasionally have released only written transcripts or have delayed public disclosure until the trial's end.

"This is a victory for the public's right to know,'' said Karen Magnuson, president of the Associated Press Managing Editors and editor of the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper in Rochester, N.Y.

Friday, February 02, 2007

It's a Dam. It's Leaky. You Don't Need to Know...

An interesting piece by the excellent environmental reporter James Brugger in the Louisville Courier-Journal:

Back-pedaling on a promise to make Cumberland River flood maps widely available, the Army Corps of Engineers has settled on a strategy of providing copies to selected libraries downriver from the leaky Wolf Creek Dam.

David Hendrix, the corps official responsible for overseeing $309 million in repairs at the dam, said the libraries will be required to sign an agreement that they won't allow the public to take photos or otherwise copy the maps.aps.

My favorite quote:

Davis said it's public knowledge that there are population centers downriver from the dam.

"It doesn't take Osama (bin Laden) in a cave to figure this out."

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Send me your greatest denial of 2006...

As part of Sunshine Week, a friend is seeking the worst, most outlandish, hilarious, sad, pathetic denials of FOI requests from 2006. Come on: I know all you FOI warriors out there have a story to tell!

Send your greatest hits to me at daviscn@missouri.edu

I'll make ya famous....