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.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Oregon University Contracts With Sports Marketers: A Trade Secret?

Oregon and Oregon State's multimillion-dollar sports marketing contracts are trade secrets and can be hidden from public view, Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers said this week.

In a nine-page opinion released late Monday, Myers' office upheld both universities' contention that they could keep the amounts of their sports broadcast and marketing rights contracts confidential under the state public records law. The confidentiality helps them maintain a business advantage over marketing contractors and other schools, the opinion said.

"The state has an economic interest in maximizing payments made to its universities pursuant to sports marketing contracts," Deputy Attorney General Peter Shepherd wrote. "In sum, would-be contractors who know exactly what the UO or OSU agreed to accept in the past might offer less than they otherwise would have offered."

Shepherd said that because private marketing firms do business with scores of other universities, "the UO's negotiators will be at a disadvantage if they cannot offer would-be contractors protection for 'trade secrets.' "

Earlier this month, The Oregonian petitioned Myers after both schools released past and present sports media marketing contracts but blacked out the guaranteed annual amounts each receives, along with other financial benefits. Each cited an exemption under the Oregon Public Records Law that keeps trade secrets confidential.

"The Oregonian's role is to get as much information as possible in front of the public," said Sandy Rowe, editor of The Oregonian. "The university's refusal to release the information is surprising and disheartening since it has selectively released some information, and other colleges seem willing to share this information with the public."

Arizona, Arizona State, Washington, Washington State and California released similar contracts to The Oregonian without blacking out their amounts. Many other college's sports marketing contracts have been reported publicly.

More here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Great FOI Idea From Across the Pond...

A charity is testing a website which automates the submitting, tracking, and publishing requests made under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act.

MySociety, which runs sites including elected representative service TheyWorkForYou.com and mass pledge system PledgeBank.com, has built a list of FoI contacts at central government departments and is creating one for local authorities.

A request made through the new site is sent to the appropriate state sector contact from a unique email address, allowing all responses to be tracked and published on the site. "Everything the department sends to that address is tacked on," mySociety director Tom Steinberg said. "The whole communication is all online."

Steinberg said so far only one organisation – Parliament – has refused to reply to a request made through the system: "They said, we can't send you this information as you are going to put it on the internet."

More here.

An Editorial on a Hideous Exemption Proposed in Maryland

Fine editorial in today's Washington Post:

PRACTICALLY every state in the nation has a law that eases access to public records and documents, a godsend for researchers, public advocacy groups and ordinary citizens, not to mention lawyers and journalists. Those laws, modeled on the federal Freedom of Information Act, have been mainstays of open and transparent government for several decades. That's why legislation pending in Maryland to cripple the state's Public Information Act is so singularly dimwitted.

Want state records on the Chesapeake Bay cleanup? Crime statistics? Information on the juvenile justice system? The legislation would block access to all of that if the request for information were "related to" a pending lawsuit -- a staggeringly broad and undefined exemption that would be almost impossible to administer. It would force document-seekers to petition a court to grant access to records that have been readily available for decades. No wonder Maryland judges, among many others, have opposed the legislation, warning that it may well be unconstitutional and would certainly result in a logjam of motions in court.

South Dakota House Passes Reform Bill

A bill that would set up an appeals process to resolve disputes over access to government records in South Dakota has been approved 68-1 by the state House.

If an agency denies a request for records, the person seeking those records could have the dispute reviewed by the state Office of Hearing Examiners.

The office could hold a hearing before determining if records should be released or remain closed to the public.

SB186 was approved earlier by the state Senate but must be returned to see if it agrees with some changes made by the House.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

New Exemption for Animal Researchers in Utah

The Utah House of Representatives passed a bill to conceal the names, personal addresses and phone numbers of U animal researchers.

The bill, which passed unanimously Feb. 22 and the Senate president signed on Monday, would modify the Government Records Access and Management Act to classify personal information of researchers who do medical or scientific research on animals at Utah colleges and universities as protected documents. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. must now sign the bill for it to become law.

Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, sponsored the bill in response to animal rights protesters from the group Utah Primate Freedom who, he said, had been harassing U researchers and vandalizing their homes.

"The public has the right to understand what research is going on...but they don't need to know specific information of workers," Bell told The Daily Utah Chronicle earlier this month. "Basic human dignity and decency requires that we have people in good faith pursuing legitimate research, but we shouldn't be harassing people just because we disagree with them. But that hasn't worked, so we have to resort to legal means."

Utah Primate Freedom activist Harold Rose said the legislation won't have any effect on the group's campaign to stop animal research.

"It's more of a symbolic gesture on their part," Rose said. "Unless they completely cease doing research, we're going to hear about it."

Rose said none of the names or addresses of researchers his organization has used to target researchers' homes were found through GRAMA requests or the Freedom of Information Act, because the U denied all of their requests. The group petitioned the U for the identities, positions and salaries of researchers last year, but the U denied the request, a decision the Utah State Records Committee upheld. On one occasion, Utah Primate Freedom submitted a request for the types and number of animals being used for research at the U, which was also denied.

More here.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

West Virginia Officials Try o Yank Tax Maps Off Website?

Kanawha County (W.Va.) tax officials have put off an injunction against a Harrison County software designer to see if the state Supreme Court weighs in on a controversial tax map issue.

Seneca Technologies, which designs software for the oil and gas industry and others, went to court last year under the state Freedom of Information Act to obtain electronic versions of all county tax maps.

Counties charge $8 a page for copies of their tax maps. Officials for Seneca Technologies filed a FOIA request with the state tax department for the maps, but were told it would cost more than $167,000 for all 20,936 maps in the state.

Company executives thought the cost was too high. Kanawha Circuit Judge Irene Berger agreed, ruling that there's nothing in state law setting the price of electronic versions of the tax maps. State law dictates that government bodies can charge "reasonable" costs to reproduce electronic information.

Seneca executives got electronic copies of the tax maps from the state for a fee of $20, then posted the maps on their Web site, making them available for free.

"The applications for [this information] are tremendous," said Patrick Lough a software engineer for Seneca Technologies.

Posting the tax maps online can save countless trips to county courthouses looking up map information, Lough said.

"Everyone who has to do mineral extraction has to do map work at the courthouse," he said. While online maps would be particularly useful to oil and gas executives, the information would also be useful to others, Lough said.

Company lawyers argue members of the public can use the information contained in the maps to cross-check property tax information, hikers can use the information to make sure they aren't trespassing on private property, colleges and universities can use the information for research projects and emergency responders can use the information to see who owns certain pieces of property.

Lough also said Seneca Technologies plans to link the tax map information with other databases and sell the information to potential clients.

But Kanawha County Assessor Phyllis Gatson fears Seneca Technologies is hijacking the maps for personal gain.

More here.

A Brave Legislative Act in Utah: Admitting Error

Don't vote for my bill.

It's a phrase rarely heard at the Utah Legislature, but that didn't stop Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, during a committee meeting Friday.

At the tail end of a long debate on SB260, Buttars asked his colleagues to vote against his bill that would make private all formal charges and disciplinary actions against a peace officer. Committee members listened and killed the bill in the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee on Friday.

"This isn't what I thought it was," Buttars said. "I really think this is not a good bill, and if you're going to vote on it, I would vote 'no' at this time."

Buttars said he wanted the bill to conceal disciplinary actions if the officer were exonerated. But the bill didn't do that at all. It provided blanket protections for records detailing the misdeeds of police officers.

The majority of Utahns are against such blanket protections, according to a new Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll. In fact, 62 percent of those polled said disciplinary records should be in the public eye.

Just 31 percent said the records should be private. The Dan Jones & Associates poll was conducted Feb. 19-21 and has a margin of error, plus or minus, of 5 percent.

More here.

Friday, February 22, 2008

South Dakota Reform Fails...

A House committee Wednesday killed an open-records bill that would require the government to justify denying public access to documents.

The measure raises too many questions about how records dealing with personal information, public safety or other sensitive issues would be treated, some opponents said.

"I think they need to go back to the task force and work on a bill that they can agree on there, then bring it back," said Rep. Shantel Krebs, R-Sioux Falls, after the House's State Affairs Committee killed the bill 7-6.

Sen. Nancy Turbak Berry, D-Watertown, sponsored the bill. She said after the meeting that although the vote was close, she doubted she'd try to revive it this session.

"I will keep working on it and hammering at it," she said. "It isn't finished by any means."

She said opposition from Gov. Mike Rounds' office helped kill the bill.

"Whatever we'd try to change at this point would be nitpicked word by word," Turbak Berry said.

She served on a task force organized by Attorney General Larry Long that reviewed the status of government records in South Dakota. State law generally says records required by law to be kept are open. Numerous specific laws close different individual records or classes of records. But Long's review found that a vast number of records fall somewhere between those two areas. It also found that government officials have wide discretion to make decisions on whether to open or close records.

More here.

In Arizona, A Move Toward Some Openness in Child Protective Services...

PHOENIX — A House panel voted Thursday to give the public more access to Child Protective Services records when a child is killed or seriously injured.

But some — including a Tucson legislator — want more.

HB 2765 requires the Department of Public Safety to provide information on request about any fatality or near fatality if it is "reasonably suspected" the assailant was a parent or guardian.

The bill sets up a series of procedures the agency would follow, sets some deadlines and also gives county prosecutors a chance to object if they believe the release would harm efforts to complete an investigation.

The legislation was approved by the House Committee on Human Services on a 7-1 vote.
Rep. Pete Hershberger, R-Tucson, who is sponsoring the measure crafted by CPS attorneys, said it is designed to balance the public's right to know with both the needs of county attorneys to successfully prosecute assailants as well as the restrictions of federal law that shield certain personal information from disclosure.

"I think there's real movement here," he said.

But Rep. Jonathan Paton, R-Tucson, said the procedures in Hershberger's bill likely would delay the release of any information.

The legislation is in direct response to the deaths last year of Brandon Williams and Ariana and Tyler Payne in Tucson. It took a lawsuit by the Arizona Daily Star to force CPS to surrender the documents under the state's Public Records Law.

John Moody who represents the Arizona Newspapers Association said Hershberger's bill removes CPS documents from being subject to the Public Records Law and sets up an entirely separate procedure, one he believes is more cumbersome.

Attorney David Bodney, who represents The Arizona Republic, pointed out the Public Records Law requires documents to be surrendered "promptly." He said while there is no specific time frame, that is bound to be quicker than the procedures in Hershberger's bill.

That bill says that within seven days of a request, CPS must inform the county attorney or the law-enforcement agency reviewing the matter of the intent to release information. That agency then has seven days to decide whether it wants to review the materials before they go out.

Then CPS has another 30 days to gather the information.

What happens next depends on whether police or prosecutors want to redact certain information or object to the records going out, which lands the process in court.

Bodney called that "a bureaucratic maze of deadlines."

More here.

A "Borderline Preposterous" Denial

Jacksonville State University has refused a newspaper’s request for athletic-department records less than a year after the state attorney general’s office said a request for copies of coaches’ contracts should be granted.

The Anniston Star has been seeking the results of the school’s athletic department drug-testing program since April 2007 to review its effectiveness. But the university has denied the request each time, saying it would compromise the identity of student-athletes who tested positive.

Birmingham attorney Gilbert Johnston, who handles public-records law cases, said JSU’s assertion is “borderline preposterous.”

University President William Meehan referred all questions on the issue to the school’s attorney, Randy Woodrow of Anniston. He has said disclosure of the records could be a violation of federal laws governing medical privacy.

The Star has amended its requests to more general terms to ensure individuals could not be identified, but the school says the sample size would still make it easy to identify individual athletes.

“We understand and appreciate the university’s need to protect medical privacy of these student-athletes,” Star Editor Bob Davis said in a Feb. 20 story. “We believe the public has a right to know about drug testing conducted by the athletic department of a public university using public funds.”

More here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

FOI bills in Mississippi advance...

A handful of bills that would lift the veil of secrecy from state and local government cleared the first legislative hurdle Tuesday.

Among the survivors is a measure that would require law enforcement agencies to make police incident reports available to the public when an investigation is complete, according to the Associated Press.

House and Senate committees cleared companion bills addressing the police incident reports.

The bills are among several bills designed to improve government openness being supported by the Mississippi Freedom of Information Center and the Mississippi Press Association. Several state news organizations, including the Hattiesburg American, recently published an eight-day series on Mississippi's sunshine laws.

Also clearing a House committee was a bill that gives the state Ethics Commission the authority to enforce the sunshine laws.

A bill introduced by Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, that would give the public access to details about state contracts and subcontracts via the Internet was approved by the House Appropriations Committee.

Barker, a freshman, said the bill cleared the committee without changes.

"There were questions about the cost of the Web site, but we found out that most recently Missouri and Kansas have implemented their Web sites for no cost," he said.

He said the federal government has free software for states to set up Web sites.

Barker said the bill, which would establish the Mississippi Taxpayer Transparency Act, still has a long way to go.

More here.

Water, Water Everywhere...Secret Water Pact Makes the Papers

Look for more of this sort of thing as water becomes more precious:

Officials from Alabama, Florida and Georgia signed a confidentiality agreement in January that includes two private utilities and prohibits the parties from disclosing to the public details of the ongoing negotiations over water rights in the region.

A Florida seafood industry group says the secrecy deal, which also includes the federal government, is illegal and is asking the state's open government commission to throw it out.

"It just fuels suspicion on the part of people down here whose livelihoods depend on this," Kevin Begos, executive director of the Franklin County Oyster & Seafood Task Force, said Tuesday. "We just feel that we have no real say in what's going on and we're not getting any solid information about what's being discussed."

The task force obtained a copy of the agreement through an open records request after state and federal officials provided few details on the status of negotiations last week.

Sarah Williams, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said the agreement was intended to allow for open negotiations even as the states face off in a series of related court battles.

"The confidentiality agreement was there to ensure we can have open and fair discussions without compromising ongoing litigation," she said. "When we have more details, when we have a proposal, it will be put forth to the public."

But it seems the secrecy doesn't meet with everyone's approval:

Read more here.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Tough Look at the Utah Police Files Exemption

Amen, Amen:

Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank and police union President Tom Gallegos are tight.

Which explains how Gallegos can still be on the job after harassing two female co-workers - "I probably should not be alone in a room with you when you're on your knees," he told one - and sending porn from his city computer (a felony). Instead of firing Gallegos, Burbank has filled his personnel file with letters of reprimand.

Gallegos probably would rather not have the dirty details of his on-the-job sexual harassment training revealed. But even Chief Burbank couldn't help him.

West Jordan Republican Sen. Chris Buttars can. He's sponsoring legislation that would allow cops like Gallegos - with the complicity of police chiefs like Burbank - to keep their disciplinary records secret. Under the bill, which is backed by the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, officers would have to consent to release information about their bad acts.

Buttars' bill is part of lawmakers' annual chipping away at Utah's public records law. Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville, is sponsoring legislation that would allow government agencies to classify the minutes of meetings as "protected drafts." Orem Republican Sen. Margaret Dayton has carved out a special exemption allowing lawmakers to get "private, controlled or protected" information.

More here.

Private College Records May Well Be Public, Too...

Like cops in any major city, campus police officers at many private universities carry guns and can arrest people on the spot. But since they don't work for taxpayers, the public can't always delve into the records of what they do and where they do it.

But that may be changing.

At Yale University in New Haven, Conn., an attorney is successfully prying open personnel records of the campus police department. In Georgia, 2006 legislation opened up police records at private universities to public view. In Massachusetts, the legislature is considering a similar bill.

Crime records at private universities are "the last major issue in terms of getting access to crime information," says S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security on Campus, Inc., in King of Prussia, Pa.

For their part, private universities say they are not public agencies and must act to protect the privacy of students and staff. But critics argue that public relations play at least as big a role. "For PR purposes, colleges want to perpetuate the impression that their campuses are crime-free enclaves," says Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., which supports college newspapers. "Honestly, no one believes that. Everyone believes that a campus with 20,000 or 30,000 young people on it is going to have some crime. It's not even an effective charade."

More here.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Security Exemption Looms in Virginia

I like the lead of this story:

In the basement of a building between an IHOP and a car dealership sits the nexus of Virginia’s fight against terror.

There, people who need special clearances pass through layer after layer of security on their way to a conference room so secure no one can have a cell phone or a piece of electronic equipment inside. The door locks alone cost $4,000 apiece.

Most people know little about the Virginia Fusion Center. And if a bill quietly wending through the General Assembly becomes law, they’ll know even less.

The bill, coincidentally named HB1007, would exempt the center’s investigative and intelligence documentation from the state Freedom of Information Act and would shield its employees from subpoenas in civil lawsuits concerning criminal intelligence information or terrorism investigations.

Open government watchdogs decried the bill. They said it goes too far in giving additional furtive powers to a quasi-secret agency. They point to the measure as another cramp to personal freedoms in a post-Sept. 11, 2001, era....

The bill passed the House 98-1, and a Senate panel could hear it this week. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine supports the measure, according to a spokesman.

The Virginia Press Association and the Virginia Coalition for Open Government have lobbied against the bill. The Virginian-Pilot is a member of the press association and is a founding partner of the Coalition for Open Government....

Ginger Stanley, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, calls HB1007 “Big Brother at work.”

Stanley said it is understandable to restrict information about terror investigations but that blocking public access to records related to “criminal intelligence” – as the bill reads – is overbroad and could apply to anything.

That would “allow them to keep private every piece of information,” she said. “They need protection to a point, but they take it way beyond that.”

More here.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bad Bill Department: Secret Police Records?

The state's largest police department and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker are backing a controversial bill that would severely limit public access to the disciplinary records of police officers.

Police Chief Chris Burbank this week cast the effort as a way to put city cops on par with Salt Lake County officers who enjoy greater protection of disciplinary records. In what could be a litmus test for the new mayor on records-access issues, Becker said he is taking the chief's advice.

"On the advice of our police chief, we support it," said Helen Langan, a spokeswoman for Becker. "It's a sensible thing to do."

SB260, sponsored by Sen. Chris Buttars, would give police throughout the state the same exemption carved out for county officers: disciplinary charges against them would not be made public unless the officer appeals the sanction or agrees to open the records.

Public watchdog groups opposing the bill, now before a Senate committee, say it is a way to cloak information that should be available to taxpayers who support police departments.

"Just because the county officers have this secret police system doesn't mean we want to have a statewide police system of secrecy," said attorney Michael O'Brien, who represents the Utah Media Coalition, of which The Salt Lake Tribune is a member.

More here.

Glory, Glory! PA Guv Signs New FOI Law

Gov. Ed Rendell ended Pennsylvania's distinction of having one of the nation's weakest open-records laws Thursday by signing into law a bill that will open a broader array of government documents to public inspection.

The measure makes sweeping changes to the state's Right-to-Know Law, which was enacted in 1957. It took lawmakers 13 months to agree on a version to send to the governor as they argued over how much information to conceal from average citizens and journalists.

"Is it a perfect bill? No. Is it a good bill? Absolutely. Is it a step on the road to reform? Without a doubt," said Rendell, who signed the bill at a Capitol news conference, surrounded by Democratic and Republican legislators.

The new law, which takes effect in January, will force agencies to disclose all records beyond a list of exceptions, rather than the old law's narrow list of public records available.

Agencies also will be required to justify any decisions to keep records secret. The old law put the legal burden on citizens to prove why a record must be disclosed.

Revising the law became a cornerstone of the Legislature's reform agenda after two dozen lawmakers were voted out in the wake of the 2005 pay raise debacle. The raise, which the General Assembly passed hastily in the middle of one summer night, was later repealed.

"It's something I think that will pay dividends for years to come in the interaction between citizens and their government, and I think further affirms the commitment we've made ... to an open and transparent process, which would necessarily help citizens regain confidence in their government," said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, the bill's prime sponsor.

Congrats, Pennsylvanians!

Read more here.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Great New FOI Series in Mississippi

The business of government is a costly enterprise, and its stockholders, the people of Mississippi, must feed the treasury year after year to keep the state, counties, towns and cities afloat.

Last year, Mississippi taxpayers ponied up billions to complete their part of the social contract that keeps democracy of, for, and by the people - and the people's pocketbook - alive.

But, in what might be considered a not-so-kind twist to the partnership of people and politicians, those who pass the laws have constantly chosen to limit the information that is shared with the very people who elect them and fund their activities.

At every turn, you will discover where state lawmakers have tightened the flow of information about government that the electorate needs to make informed decisions.

Elected officials too often subvert the public's right to important information when they acquire the paternalistic - even arrogant - notion that they know what is best for us. They continually take steps such as closed-door meetings and create exemptions to state laws intended to keep government open.

Who is protected by acts cloaked in secrecy? An inquiring public shut off from its own business or public officials who want to avoid responsibility for their actions?

News organizations across Mississippi have produced an eight-day series of reports about secrecy in government. These articles represent an extraordinary effort by reporters and editors who are concerned that the lack of transparency in Mississippi is harmful to the state's well-being.

Read it all here.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Detroit Mayor's Text Messages: Part of Secret Deal

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick personally approved a cover-up of explosive text messages between him and his top aide Christine Beatty as part of an $8.4-million trial settlement last year, according to documents the city agreed Thursday to make public.

As part of the deal, the records show, the text messages were stashed temporarily in a safe deposit box across from City Hall. Each side got a key, but agreed not to open the box outside the presence of the other. Kilpatrick was to take possession of the messages only after the payout was made to the three former police officers who had sued.

City officials had denied the existence of secret documents since October, when the Free Press first requested them under Michigan's Freedom of Information Act. The paper wanted to know more about why Kilpatrick suddenly agreed to settle the lawsuits brought by the cops who claimed they were retaliated against because of their connections to an investigation of the mayor's security team -- a probe they said would have exposed Kilpatrick's affair with Beatty.

The key record that came to light Thursday, when attorneys for the city said they would no longer oppose its concealment, is a Nov. 1 document marked "Confidential Agreement."

More here.

Concealed weapons exemption passes in VA...

The House of Delegates passed legislation today that would allow information about Virginians with permits to carry concealed handguns to be kept off limits to the public.

House Bill 982, sponsored by Del. Dave Nutter, R-Christiansburg, was originally intended to exempt a state police database of permit-holders from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The bill was amended Thursday to allow circuit court clerks to deny public access to the information, and prohibit them from releasing anything more than the names of people who are granted permits.

The bill passed the House by a vote of 97-1 and now heads to the Senate.

Nutter filed the bill in response to a controversy sparked last year by The Roanoke Times, which posted a state police database of concealed carry permit holders on its Web site and published an editorial writer’s column encouraging readers to access the list. Widespread complaints prompted the newspaper to remove the data from its site.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

PA House Delays Vote on FOI REform...

Pennsylvania House Republicans engineered a six-day delay Wednesday of a vote on a bill that would greatly expand what Pennsylvanians can learn about the actions of their state and local governments. Supporters of the delay said they needed time to make much-needed repairs to the bill, which passed the Senate unanimously a week earlier. "So much work has been invested in this bill, it would be a terrible shame that you would actually injure your constituents by moving forward with it as it is," said Rep. John Maher, R-Allegheny, who proposed the delay. It passed 100-98, with Republican House Speaker Dennis O'Brien the only representative to cross party lines in voting against the measure. Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, called the move a case of GOP obstructionism and "an obvious, obvious delaying tactic."

More here.

Much, much more on the threatened FOIA ombud move...

If this was to be done on the sly, well, fat chance.

Read more here, including this nugget:

More than 30 open-government groups (including the NFOIC) have signed a letter they will deliver this week to Capitol Hill, "to highlight for congressional appropriators the executive branch's attempt to re-write the law -- signed only five weeks ago by the President," Chris Green, program associate at OpenTheGovernment.org said in an e-mailed request for signatures.

Sens. Cornyn and Leahy don't like the move at all. Not one bit...

Saturday, February 02, 2008

VA Donor Anonymity Bill Advances...

Despite protests from open government advocates, a House of Delegates subcommittee on Thursday endorsed a bill that would allow the University of Virginia to withhold the identities of financial donors who demand anonymity.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Glenn Oder, R-Newport News, aims to exempt the bulk of UVa’s massive donor database from Virginia’s open records law.

UVa’s database includes personal information - including net worth, marital status and Social Security numbers - for more than 450,000 potential donors. Fundraising officials at the university rely on the database as part of UVa’s quest to collect $3 billion.

“We want to remain as transparent as possible, but we also have a responsibility to our donors to protect certain personal information that should be kept private,” said UVa spokeswoman Carol Wood.

The Freedom of Information Act subcommittee of the House Committee on General Laws approved the bill in a 3-2 vote with no public testimony or debate Thursday. The bill had been postponed a week earlier over concerns about conflicts of interest that might arise at UVa from anonymous donations.

Open government advocates do not object to the bill’s goal of shielding highly personal information from the Freedom of Information Act. However, they do take issue with a provision of the bill that would allow UVa to hide the identities of any donors who want to stay anonymous.

“It’s very unfortunate that the committee decided to close these records,” said Jennifer Perkins, executive director of the Coalition for Open Government. “If the bill goes forward, the public would have no way of knowing if someone is trying to buy their son’s or daughter’s way into the university.”

More here.

Why This Access Stuff Is Important....

If you need a TEXTBOOK example of the damage done by government secrecy, look no further than this: a tiny little change in Texas law that allowed police to hide their backgrounds. See in this editorial the damage done:

In San Antonio, however, no one can look at records that tell you a civil servant's qualifications for his or her job. As Express-News staff writers Guillermo Contreras and Todd Bensman reported, that's because of the obscure provisions of a misguided law passed by the Legislature back in 1987.

The police unions that lobbied for Section 143.089 of the Local Government Code say it protects police officers from becoming targets of character assassination by rumor and innuendo. And clearly there's a level of credibility that should be met before an issue in a personnel file becomes a matter of public interest.

In practice, however, Section 143.089 is used to shield unscrupulous behavior from public view. In the case of former police officer Joseph Evans, the Express-News reported, it prevents the public from finding out how he was able to obtain a job with the San Antonio Police Department despite a drunken driving conviction, attempting to hide an arrest for criminal trespass, a hit-and-run conviction and a prior SAPD rejection of his application.

The public only knows those details because they became accessible during Evans' federal trial on charges related to methamphetamine trafficking. The public doesn't know why former Deputy Chief Gilbert Sandoval overrode the recommendations of SAPD screeners not to hire Evans in the first place.

More here.

Friday, February 01, 2008

A Clinton Records Dispute

The National Archives wants a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit seeking quick access to records about a health care task force Hillary Rodham Clinton headed as first lady, or delay the release for about a year.

Judicial Watch, a conservative public interest group, has complained in a lawsuit that the National Archives isn't moving fast enough on its April 2006 request to see the documents. The archives says Judicial Watch is trying to jump ahead of those who made earlier requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

"(The National Archives) does not believe that Judicial Watch or any other requester should receive more favorable treatment outside of our existing queue system," said Miriam Kleiman, a spokeswoman for the archives. "We have therefore asked the court to leave Judicial Watch's FOIA request in its proper place by dismissing or postponing any ruling in the case."

The documents are at the Clinton presidential library in Little Rock, which the archives operates. A year's delay would keep the documents from public view until after the Nov. 4 presidential election.

More here.