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, June 28, 2009

Jon & Kate's divorce record will be sealed

Jon and Kate Gosselin have shifted their divorce case out of their hometown in Berks County to Montgomery County, which is 50 miles away, the AP reported. It could be because divorce records are open in Berks but sealed in Montgomery. The policy in Montgomery might be open to a legal challenge, however, because the Pennsylvania Constitution declares that "all courts shall be open."
Jon and Kate Gosselin don't live in Montgomery County, Pa. So why are the stars of "Jon & Kate Plus 8" getting divorced there?

One likely answer: to take advantage of an unusual local rule that keeps prying eyes away from divorce records. In Montgomery County, a wealthy enclave outside Philadelphia, divorce filings are automatically placed under seal — barring access to the media and the public and allowing fractious couples like the Gosselins to dissolve their broken marriages in private.

The rule was written decades ago, before no-fault divorce became an option and at a time when divorce petitions tended to be more explosive and salacious than they are today, said Richard Hodgson, the county's president judge.

More here.

Fla. governor vetoes two public records exemptions

Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed one bill that would have "exempted 'propriety business information' obtained from a telecommunications or broadband company by the Department of Management Services," the AP reported. The other bill he vetoed would have exempted the identification of a donor or prospective donor to a publicly owned building who wished to remain anonymous. He signed into law a bill that allows commercial entities (including the media) to obtain Social Security numbers to verify someone's identity.
Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday vetoed two bills that would have created new public record exemptions.

One measure (HB 7093) would have exempted "proprietary business information" obtained from a telecommunications or broadband company by the Department of Management Services.

Crist wrote in his veto message the term used was overly broad and suggested that lawmakers try again next year to craft language that protects business interests "while still respecting the state's strong public policy for open and transparent government."

More here.

Nestle denied FDA access to certain records

FDA investigators were denied access to Nestle complaint logs, pest-control records and other records from 2004-2007, the AP reported. An FDA spokeswoman said companies are allow to decide what they will permit during an inspection.

Inspection reports from a Nestlé USA cookie dough factory released yesterday show the company declined several times in the past five years to provide Food and Drug Administration inspectors with complaint logs, pest-control records and other information.

The records, which date to 2004, were made public after Nestlé's Toll House refrigerated, prepackaged cookie dough was discovered to be the likely culprit in an E. coli outbreak that has sickened 69 people in 29 states, according to the latest estimates from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC and the FDA are investigating the outbreak.

According to the reports released by the FDA, the company declined to allow agency investigators access to certain documents in at least 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007.

More here.

Friday, June 26, 2009

U.S. Government CIO speaks about plans for Data.gov

Wired published a Q&A with Vivek Kundra, the U.S. government's first-ever chief information officer, in this month's issue. Kundra spoke about his plans for Data.gov and navigating privacy issues. Wired also has its own Wiki where people can report government data that is not accessible and can suggest how accessibility to government data could be improved.

The Obama administration's most radical idea may also be its geekiest: Make nearly every hidden government spreadsheet and buried statistic available online, all in one place. For anyone to see. Are you searching for a Food and Drug Administration report that used to be obtainable only through the Freedom of Information Act? Just a mouseclick away. Need National Institutes of Health studies and school testing scores? Click. Census data, nonclassified Defense Department specs, obscure Securities and Exchange Commission files, prison statistics? Click click. Click. Click.

The man in charge is the US government's first-ever chief information officer, Vivek Kundra. Previously CTO of the District of Columbia, Kundra, 34, knows that the move from airtight opacity to radical transparency won't be a cakewalk. Until now, the US government's default position has been: If you can't keep data secret, at least hide it on one of 24,000 federal Web sites, preferably in an incompatible or obsolete format.

More here.

Recycled rubber might be dangerous

FOI at Work!
The recycled rubber used to cushion children's playgrounds could be contaminated with lead and other toxins, USA Today reported. The advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility learned of this potential danger through internal EPA documents obtained via an FOIA request. A 2008 EPA memo said "there are insufficient data to assess the full spectrum of those risks." Rubber-chip surfaces, however, do prevent injuries better than bark mulch of concrete surfaces.
There's a growing debate about the safety of the recycled rubber chips used to cushion falls on many children's playgrounds.

The Environmental Protection Agency has endorsed rubber play surfaces since 1991, both to protect children from head injuries and prevent tires from ending up in landfills, where they can catch fire or become breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

Yet EPA officials say they can't vouch for the safety of recycled rubber, which can be contaminated with lead and other toxins, according to internal documents released under the Freedom of Information Act to the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER.

More here.

Are personal e-mails sent via a work computer public?

The Wisconsin Supreme Court will consider whether personal e-mails sent on work computers are public, the AP reported. A citizen requested e-mails sent by Wisconsin Rapids School District teachers to determine how much time they were spending on personal business during school hours. A judge ordered the e-mails to be released, but the teachers appealed.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court will decide whether personal e-mails sent by public employees are subject to the state's open records law.

The case involves five teachers in the Wisconsin Rapids School District. A citizen asked for e-mails sent from their work computers to determine if they were spending too much time on personal business.

The employees did not object to releasing work e-mails but filed a lawsuit to keep their personal messages private. A judge ordered the e-mails made public, but the teachers appealed.

More here.

Monday, June 22, 2009

U. of I. trustees used clout system for their benefit

FOI at Work!
The Chicago Tribune obtained new records that show almost 100 instances in which University of Illinois trustees "backed" applicants -- including their relatives, colleagues' children and "key employees" -- in the past three years. Between 2003 and 2008, more than 800 applicants were "flagged for special treatment" at the Urbana-Champaign campus. Every member of the Board of Trustees took part in the process, except for new trustee Edward McMillan. "All (trustees) are political contributors, with some having close political ties or a record of generous contributions to the impeached governor." The trustees maintain that they weren't meddling in the admissions process but were serving as intermediaries between applicants and the university.
In September 2006, the dean of the University of Illinois' law school e-mailed a colleague in admissions to say that a U. of I. trustee had "just called me about getting his [relative] into law school here next year."

Dean Heidi Hurd asked the administrator to walk the board member, Dr. Kenneth Schmidt, through "all the variables and considerations to the admissions process."

"Needless to say, this one takes velvet gloves," Hurd wrote, public records show. Schmidt's relative was admitted.
More here.

Records show Conn. officials were warned about dangerous chimp

FOI at Work!
Through an open-records request, the AP obtained records showing that Connecticut officials had been warned since 2003 about a chimpanzee that attacked a woman in February. A Stamford citizen sent an e-mail to the state Department of Environmental Protection asking for a thorough investigation after the chimp escaped from his owner's car in 2003. Someone who ran a primate rescue operation suggested that the chimp be placed in a sanctuary in 2004. The general public began contacting the department with safety concerns. The DEP said no calls or letters presented "specific information indicating that Travis (the chimp) had threatened the public safety or was exhibiting behavior that could lead to such a threat."
Connecticut officials were repeatedly warned about the dangers posed by a chimpanzee who later mauled and blinded a woman and were urged — more than three years before the attack — to take action, but failed to do so, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.

The 200-pound chimpanzee named Travis attacked Charla Nash of Stamford in February, ripping off her hands, nose, lips and eyelids. She has been hospitalized for months at the Cleveland Clinic, where her condition late last week was listed as stable.

The state's response could affect a high-stakes lawsuit the victim's family filed against the chimp's owner, Sandra Herold of Stamford, seeking $50 million in damages. Attorneys are weighing whether to sue others as well, but declined to comment further.

More here.

Newsweek: Obama opts against public disclosure

David Sobel, a lawyer who specializes in FOIA cases, told Newsweek that "nothing has changed" since Obama promised a new era of openness. Instead, the Bush administration's policies are being continued. FOIA experts say Obama's directive for federal agencies to presume disclosure of FOIA requests contained a loophole. The memo "said the new standard applies 'if practicable' for cases involving 'pending litigation.'" The recent controversy of over the denial of White House visitors logs falls into this category due to a pending Bush-era lawsuit for such records.

As a senator, Barack Obama denounced the Bush administration for holding "secret energy meetings" with oil executives at the White House. But last week public-interest groups were dismayed when his own administration rejected a Freedom of Information Act request for Secret Service logs showing the identities of coal executives who had visited the White House to discuss Obama's "clean coal" policies. One reason: the disclosure of such records might impinge on privileged "presidential communications." The refusal, approved by White House counsel Greg Craig's office, is the latest in a series of cases in which Obama officials have opted against public disclosure. Since Obama pledged on his first day in office to usher in a "new era" of openness, "nothing has changed," says David -Sobel, a lawyer who litigates FOIA cases. "For a president who said he was going to bring unprecedented transparency to government, you would certainly expect more than the recycling of old Bush secrecy policies."

The hard line appears to be no accident. After Obama's much-publicized Jan. 21 "transparency" memo, administration lawyers crafted a key directive implementing the new policy that contained a major loophole, according to FOIA experts. The directive, signed by Attorney General Eric Holder, instructed federal agencies to adopt a "presumption" of disclosure for FOIA requests. This reversal of Bush policy was intended to restore a standard set by President Clinton's attorney general, Janet Reno. But in a little-noticed passage, the Holder memo also said the new standard applies "if practicable" for cases involving "pending litigation." Dan Metcalfe, the former longtime chief of FOIA policy at Justice, says the passage and other "lawyerly hedges" means the Holder memo is now "astonishingly weaker" than the Reno policy. (The visitor-log request falls in this category because of a pending Bush-era lawsuit for such records.)

More here.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Medical records of minor cancer patient are public

A Brown County district judge ruled that the medical records of Daniel Hauser, 13, are public, City Pages reported. Hauser's case has been in the public eye after he and his mother fled the Minnesota to avoid chemo for his Hodgkin's lymphoma. The judge said the boy's parents have spoken to the media and the case has been in the public thus far. Therefore, it wouldn't make sense to reverse the course now.
He might be a minor and the issue might be medical records, but that doesn't mean this family will have any medical privacy in their case as their boy has forced chemotherapy treatment for his cancer.

A judge denied their request to seal the medical records of Daniel Hauser, 13, who made national headlines when he fled the state with his mother to avoid chemo for his Hodgkin's lymphoma.
More here.

Enviro groups ask for list of 'high hazard' disposal sites

A band of environmental groups filed an FOIA request after the EPA declined to provide information on which coal ash sites have been deemed a national security risk. Apparently, the Department of Homeland Security has designated 44 massive coal ash piles as high hazard, but the EPA was informed not to release the site locations due to national security risks.
A coalition of environmental groups today formally asked the Department of Homeland Security, the Army Corp of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency to make public the list of 44 "high hazard" coal ash disposal sites across the country. The Freedom of Information Act request was submitted by the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, the Environmental Integrity Project, and Natural Resources Defense Council after the EPA refused to disclose which of the hundreds of coal ash sites pose such a threat to nearby communities that they have been deemed by the Obama administration to be a national security risk.

"The Department of Homeland Security has designated 44 massive coal ash piles as 'high hazard' because they present a clear and present danger to the people living near them," said Bruce Nilles, Director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "People have a right to know if mountains of toxic coal ash are threatening their communities so they can take action and put pressure on their local utilities to demand clean up."

The EPA was instructed by the Department of Homeland Security not to release information about the location of high hazard dams containing coal ash. Unspecified national security concerns were cited as the reason for withholding this critical information from the public, even though the locations of other hazardous sites, such as nuclear plants are publicly available.

More here.

Concealed-weapon permit data: privacy vs. public interest

The News Media and the Law provided a comprehensive report on the increasing frequency of bills to close concealed-weapon permit data. Ginger Stanley of the Virginia Press Association said most legislative proposals to seal away this data can be traced back to a newspaper's use and/or publication of it. Sheriffs have had difficulty finding instances in which crimes were committed due to public access to permit data. However, there have been a slew of instances in which the data was used to inform the public when permitting failed, thereby risking the community.

It’s tough to call it a trend, exactly, when lawmakers in various states have long set their sights on sealing concealed-weapon permit data. But their efforts seem to be paying off more than ever: Since the beginning of 2008, at least seven states have considered legislation yanking permit-holder information from public files. Only one such battle looks to have yielded a complete win — for now — for open governance.

Newspapers from Oregon to Virginia, meanwhile, have inserted themselves or been thrust into the center of fiercely polarized debates over privacy, personal safety and the constitution. It was the Medford Mail Tribune’s 2007 request for the Jackson County, Ore., sheriff’s roster of local permit-holders that touched off a statewide rift between law enforcement and transparency advocates. It culminated in a legislative measure generally sealing the permits.

More here.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

FOIA used to obtain photos of plane without wheel

FOI at Work
WIVB News 4 in Buffalo, N.Y. obtained photos of a Colgan Air plane that lost a tire when landing on May 12 via an FOIA request. The FAA report also indicated that a passenger had notified a flight attendant about smoke coming from the wheel but the cockpit crew wasn't told about the safety concern.
News 4 has obtained exclusive photographs of the Colgan Air plane that lost a tire when it landed in Buffalo on May 12. The photographs were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The photos show the extent of damage to the wheel and brake assembly. A News 4 Investigation recently uncovered new information. An FAA report obtained by News 4 indicates that the cockpit crew had no idea that there was a problem after take-off from New Jersey. A passenger, according to the FAA report, notified a flight attendant that he saw smoke coming from the “wheel” in question.
More here.

Tenn. Senate votes against closing access to handgun permits

A proposal to prevent access to the names of people who have handgun permits failed 14-13 in the Tennessee Senate, the AP reported. A compromise amendment that would have still closed the database but allowed some inspection of records also failed.

A measure to close access to the names of people holding state permits to carry loaded handguns failed last night in the state Senate. Opponents called the vote a victory for open government.

The proposal sponsored by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville was defeated 14-13 in the Senate when it failed to get a majority vote. Norris didn't say whether he would try to revive the proposal, H.B. 0959, which passed the House 83-12 last month.

"This is not a gun bill, it's an open-records bill," said Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis. "This is about your open records and your open government. It has nothing to do with guns."

More here.

FBI releases Watergate planner E. Howard Hunt's file

The FBI files on E. Howard Hunt, who orchestrated the Watergate break-in, are thin, according to the AP, which received the data after filing an FOIA request. About 100 pages of his file weren't released because they're National Archives property. What was released included FBI background checks from when he joined the CIA and when he was hired as a White House consultant. Most of the files, however, concern Hunt's request for a presidential pardon from President Ronald Reagan.
Watergate break-in planner E. Howard Hunt sought a presidential pardon by saying he thought the infamous burglary had "executive authorization," according to FBI documents released two years after his death. He died without getting a pardon.

The FBI released 167 pages of Hunt's files following a Freedom of Information Act request by The Associated Press. Wednesday marks 37 years since police caught the burglars in the Washington break-in. The case ultimately made Hunt a household name and led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Despite working as a CIA agent for more than two decades and his role in Watergate, Hunt's file is remarkably thin. As a CIA agent Hunt was involved in a U.S.-backed coup in Guatemala in 1954 and the botched Bay of Pigs attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. He worked in China, Mexico, Japan and Spain, among other places.

More here.

ProPublica requests list of businesses trying to hide flight plans

Who other than General Motors is trying to prevent the public from tracking its corporate jets? ProPublica filed an FOIA request for a list of the companies that had requested the FAA to remove their planes' tail numbers from records. The Block Aircraft Registration Request Program allows companies to request for their flight plans to be kept private. Flight plans collected by the FAA on all planes that use public airspaces are typically public. The FAA concluded that ProPublica's requested information was public, but the National Business Aviation Association filed a motion for a temporary restraining order. Now, the FAA will withhold the list until a judge hears arguments from both sides.

Remember last fall when the CEOs of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler flew on corporate jets [2] to Washington, D.C., to plead for a taxpayer bailout? The resulting bad publicity prompted GM to try to prevent the public [3] from tracking its planes in databases compiled by the Federal Aviation Administration.

That got ProPublica interested in how many other companies had asked the FAA to excise their planes' tail numbers from records tracking private flights. So in December, ProPublica filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for a complete listing.

Earlier this month, the FAA concluded that the information was public and planned to release the list on Tuesday. But on Monday, an organization representing corporate jet users went to court to block the release of the records.

More here.

Groups win access to Calif. lawmakers database

The California First Amendment Coalition and MAPLight.org won access to a machine-readable state lawmakers database in its settlement with the Office of Legislative Counsel of California, the California Chronicle reported. The previous form of the database hindered analysis. After the lawsuit was filed, the Office of Legislative Counsel unrolled a "structured database" on its Web site, which can be downloaded by anyone at www.leginfo.ca.gov. MAPLight.org plans to use the structured database to create MAPLight.org California, which will "combine all money given to members of the California state legislature with how each politician votes on every bill, revealing patterns of money and influence never before possible to see."
The California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC) and MAPLight.org, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization that shows the connection between money and politics, announce today that they have settled their freedom of information lawsuit against the Office of Legislative Counsel of California, having gained the object of their suit: a machine-readable database of how state lawmakers vote.

"It shouldn't take a lawsuit for the government to realize its data belongs to the people," said Daniel Newman, MAPLight.org's executive director. "In this new era of highlighting transparency, we hope this settlement serves as an example to city and state governments across the country to provide public access to public information."

California Legislative data, including how lawmakers vote, legislation in progress, and laws, was previously available to the public only in a plain-text format on the California Legislative Information website. That data was suitable for viewing and printing, but only allowed access to Legislative data at a rate of one bill at a time, making analysis lengthy and cumbersome.
More here.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Chicago Tribune sues for data on clout applicants

The Chicago Tribune has filed a lawsuit against the University of Illinois after officials declined to disclose ACT test scores and GPAs for applicants who were given preferential treatment. The data was originally requested in April while the newspaper was conducting its investigation. The university president says FERPA prevents the release of those details even if student names would be redacted.
The Chicago Tribune filed a state lawsuit Tuesday against the University of Illinois demanding the immediate release of grade point averages and standardized test scores of the hundreds of college applicants placed on an internal list of well-connected students.

The Tribune originally sought the information in April for an ongoing series of stories about the clout list, in which it reported that students whose applications were pushed by public officials or university trustees received preferential treatment by the admissions office despite concerns about some applicants' qualifications.

In response to an Illinois Freedom of Information Act request by the Tribune, the university released about 1,800 pages of documents -- including e-mail exchanges expressing worry about the "terrible" and "weak" academic records of some applicants -- that have been the foundation of the Tribune's "Clout Goes to College" series.
More here.

Obama embraces another Bush secrecy policy

The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration after Secret Service rejected requests for White House visitor logs, the Washington Post reported. CREW specifically sought data on the visits of coal company executives but had submitted a broader request for logs that was also denied. Obama's administration says the policies are being reviewed.
President Obama has embraced Bush Administration justifications for denying public access to White House visitors logs even as advisers say they are reviewing the policy of keeping secret the official record of comings and goings.

In recent days, the Secret Service has rejected requests from two organizations for the logs, which document the West Wing meetings that have helped shape Obama's policies on banking regulation, economic recovery, foreign policy and the auto industry.

Today, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration seeking release of the visits of coal company executives to the White House. Msnbc.com reported today that their broader request for logs since Jan. 20 was also denied.

More here.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Sunshine Week likely to get the shaft

Sunshine Week, started in 2005 to raise public awareness about open-government issues, is likely to lose its full-time coordinator, Columbia Journalism Review reported. Debra Gersh Hernandez, who works as the Sunshine Week outside contractor for the American Society of News Editors, predicts that she will lose her job by the end of the month. The ASNE executive director says the work will be assigned to a staffer, who will oversee Sunshine Week part time. The Knight Foundation, which originally funded the program, had reduced its funding and agreed to host a "matching funds drive with ASNE, aimed at providing a $6 million-plus endowment for the organization." The fundraising effort proved unsuccessful; ASNE raised only $471,600 of the anticipated $2.5 million, according to early May figures.

In case you haven’t heard, it’s tough times out there for newspapers: Jobs are disappearing, pages are shrinking, bureaus are closing. Here’s one more casualty for the count: unless some unexpected funding comes through, Sunshine Week, the annual nationwide media event designed to draw attention to open government issues, will soon go without a full-time coordinator.

According to Debra Gersh Hernandez, who works as the Sunshine Week outside contractor for the American Society of News Editors, she will likely be without a job by the end of the month.

“We’re still going to do Sunshine Week,” promises Scott Bosley, the executive director of the ASNE. Bosley says the organization will transfer the workload to an in-house staffer, who will plan the event on a part time basis.

More here.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

ACLU seeks data on border laptop searches

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a FOIA request for records on laptops searched by border officials, PC Magazine reported. ACLU says these searching practices raise questions concerning First and Fourth Amendment rights because "they involve highly intrusive governmental probing into a traveler's most private information." Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is expected to release updated guidelines regarding these border laptop searches in the next few months.

How many laptops have border officials searched at U.S. borders? The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wants to know.

The group filed a freedom of information (FOIA) request with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Homeland Security Department requesting any and all records dating back to January 1, 2007.

"Disclosure of the requested information ... will further public understanding of the government's expansive exercise of search authority over all travelers, including U.S. citizens, passing through the country's international borders," the letter reads.

More here.

D.C. Open Government Coalition searches for supporters

Tom Susman, a former partner with Ropes & Gray law firm, initiated the start of the D.C. Open Government Coalition, the Washington Examiner reported. Melissa Davenport, who provided pro bono services during the conceptual stage and took a one-year "public interest fellowship" from the firm to serve as executive director of the coalition, is meeting with various communities to drum up membership. The coalition is also working on a citizen's guide to the FOIA.

Melissa Davenport will tell you that the recent controversy surrounding Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s unwillingness to disclose information about a variety of things, including the cost of his trip to Dubai, didn’t motivate the founding of the D.C. Open Government Coalition.

“Our effort is not pegged to any administration,” she told me earlier this week. “We happen to believe the best mechanism for holding the government accountable is openness.”

Residents agree. But often they lack the knowledge, financial resources or political clout to tangle with a powerful executive. It took Judicial Watch, a national group, to squeeze from the Fenty administration details surrounding his out-of-town junkets.

More here.

The war on transparency

Glenn Greenwald for Salon.com describes the removal of the Graham-Lieberman photo suppression amendment from the war supplemental spending bill as "a potentially temporary though still quite significant victory." The amendment is "nothing but a pure manifestation of the Bush mentality," he wrote. Without the amendment, war crimes photos are likely to be released. Supporting the suppression of information that might increase anti-American sentiment implies that "we should conceal or even outright lie about all the bad things we do that might reflect poorly on us." The Washington Post reports that the Obama administration is also urging the federal court to keep concealed all evidence relating to CIA's destruction of interrogation videotapes.
Yesterday, there was a potentially temporary though still quite significant victory for those who believe in open government and transparency: as Jane Hamsher first reported, House leaders and the White House were forced to remove the Graham-Lieberman photo suppression amendment from the war supplemental spending bill, because widespread opposition to that amendment among progressive House Democrats was jeopardizing passage of the spending bill. Readers here and those of various blogs who bombarded House members with opposition calls on Friday obviously played an important role in forcing the withdrawal of this pernicious amendment. Successes of this sort are rare enough that -- even if fleeting -- they warrant some celebration.
More here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

R.I. considers withholding names of police shooters

The Rhode Island legislature proposed a bill that would protect the names of police officers involved in shootings until investigations are completed, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reported. Opponents argue that keeping this information from the public would erode the community's trust in the police force. The Baltimore Police Department has already stopped releasing the names of police officers who injure or kill people.
The Rhode Island legislature is considering a bill that would block release of the names of police officers who are involved in shootings until after investigations are complete.

The bill to amend the state's public records law, H. 6165, was proposed in response to the fallout from a 2007 police shooting, according to the Providence Journal. Backers of the bill say it allows the officers time to deal with the situation and relieves them of public pressure. But detractors argue that police shootings ought to be treated no differently from other shootings, in which the police routinely release the names of the people responsible.

More here.

Nisbet appointed director of OGIS

Miriam Nisbet was appointed as the director of the Office of Government Information Services within the National Archives and Records Administration. Nisbet has been working in Paris as the director of the Information Society Division of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization. Other positions she has held include: legislative counsel at the American Library Association, special counsel for information policy at the National Archives and deputy director of the Office Information and Privacy at the Department of Justice.
Acting Archivist of the United States Adrienne Thomas announced today the appointment of Miriam Nisbet as the director of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) within the National Archives and Records Administration. OGIS, an organization newly established under the OPEN Government Act of 2007, will provide policy guidance and mediation services for FOIA activities government-wide.

In making the announcement, Archivist Thomas said, “Ms. Nisbet is a devoted public servant who is uniquely qualified for this position. She has dedicated her entire professional life to working for open access to government records from the perspective of both the federal government and non-governmental institutions, as well as the international community. We are also delighted to welcome her back to the Archives, where she was Special Counsel for Information Policy in the 1990’s.”

“I am tremendously excited about the opportunity to be part of a new office and a new approach to make the Freedom of Information Act work better, for the requesters who seek access to records and for the Federal officials who administer the law,” said Ms. Nisbet.

More here.

Prison vendor accuses system of secret negotiations with competitor

MHM Correctional Services is suing Florida's prison system for allegedly favoring a competitor through secret deals, The Miami Herald reported. MHM accuses the prison system of holding "secret" and "closed-door" talks with its competitor before MHM learned that its extension proposal was rejected. The governor's office says MHM was rejected because the firm didn't meet the financial soundness requirements.
Florida's prison system is embroiled in a lawsuit filed by an ousted vendor on a major contract that accuses the state of illegally favoring a competitor.

The lawsuit was filed by MHM Correctional Services, which wants to extend its 2 ½ year contract to provide mental health care to more than 15,000 inmates in a dozen South Florida prisons.

In an effort to save money, the state privatized prison health care several years ago, but a legislative watchdog agency said in a report last January that the change has yielded "mixed results.''

More here.

Legislator responds to report of questionable admissions standards

The Chicago Tribune's series on admissions practices at the University of Illinois set off a fire storm. State Rep. Mike Boland wants the school system's president and those trustees who interfered with the application process to resign. He also asked the governor to appoint an investigative panel to ensure preferential treatment is no longer given to politically connected candidates. The university suspended its "clout list" (or Category 1) of student applicants and announced the creation of an internal panel to examine the process. Boland also is asking to hold legislative hearings on Category I.
Fallout from questionable admissions practices at the University of Illinois continued Sunday as a state representative called for the resignation of the school system's president and the trustees who meddled with student applications.

State Rep. Mike Boland (D-East Moline), chairman of the state House Higher Education Committee, said President B. Joseph White and other university leaders betrayed the public's confidence by giving preferential treatment to politically connected applicants.

"They were trusted to protect our university," Boland said. "In my eyes, they failed in that regard and they should resign."
More here.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Nevada cites FERPA to redact NCAA violations data

Nevada athletics director Cary Groth agrees that FERPA could be updated so that it's clearer. Nevada provided all information requested except data regarding violations in the Columbus Dispatch investigative story regarding NCAA programs. Legal counsel advised the athletic department not to release this information in the midst of the NCAA investigation into a 2007 whistleblower complaint. The Reno-Gazette Journal had also asked for information on the whistleblower complaint through three FOI requests. The university provided the data but cited FERPA and redacted student-athlete names and cited personnel matters exemptions for redacting the names of coaches and administrators.
Nevada athletics director Cary Groth said she was surprised to learn about the wide range of interpretations of FERPA -- the Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act -- and that she agreed with the law's writer that it needs to be revamped.

"I was kind of surprised there was such a variance of openness," Groth said, reacting to an investigative story by the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio that reported that many of the 119 FBS (formerly Division I-A) schools use the 1974 federal law improperly in an effort to keep their NCAA troubles secret. "In the article it talks about bringing (the law) in and looking at it again. That would be very helpful, to identify what we can and what we can't release.

"To hide behind the law when you shouldn't, I think that's wrong."
More here.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

NFOIC Summit: Civics education

Katherine Garner, president of KLGarner Consulting and NFOIC treasurer; Mary Jo McGuire, Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership faculty at College of St. Catherine; and Barbara Peterson, president of Florida First Amendment Foundation, spoke about the crisis of civics education. Tom O'Hara, adviser of The Latern at Ohio State University moderated. Here are the notes from their NFOIC Summit session:

  • Schools are not teaching civics or not teaching it as properly or fun as it could be taught. This crisis is real. Check out Richard Dreyfuss' initiative on bringing civics back into schools here.
  • Children are not understanding the importance of Americans' freedoms. Democracy must be reborn in each generation.
  • The original reason for schools in this country was to teach people how to be good citizens.
  • For a democracy, citizens need knowledge, skills and inspiration. These skills include critical thinking, civil conversations, problem-solving, knowing how to vote, etc.
  • Some education models dismiss government. Therefore, young people don't understand how the political system works, McGuire explained. The people most likely to be affected by the government -- with the Iraq war, housing and health care -- are the least likely to be prepared to speak out.
  • No Child Left Behind focuses on language arts and math. If the subject isn't tested, it isn't taught.
  • Garner discussed how difficult it was to get K-12 teachers in Texas to teach a First Amendment curriculum. When she asked why they didn't teach it, one said it was too controversial. If you teach students they have a freedom of speech and press, they use it.
  • Garner spoke about the Light of Day project which connects Texas university students. They pick an investigatory topic and make FOIA requests across the state. The students use the data to write localized stories that are published by area newspapers. The first year, the students investigated how the Cleary Act was being used on college campuses. They found that most campuses were under reporting crime and not classifying date rapes as a crime. After their stories, Southern Methodist University changed the way it reports campus date rape and decided to start sending out campus alerts after date rapes. Students uncovered University of Texas at Dallas had private off-campus apartments for international students that had toxic mold and was ripe with crime. A week after the story, the administration created a committee to study the problem. Within a month, the apartment managing company had been fired and 16 new police officers were hired.
  • Light of Day students have also studied taser reviews, which led to legislative bills to put a moratorium on them until more research could be done, and academic evaluations of university presidents, provosts and deans.
  • Texas also struggled to explain what would happen if there were no FOIA laws. The blackout book was created by taking front pages of metro sections around the state and removing all stories, photos, infographics, etc. that were based on open meetings or open records laws.
  • Peterson said the lack of civics education frightens her. A Florida first-term legislator introduced a bill that would make names of elected school board members anonymous.
  • Peterson worked with a group of Florida young adults who had grown up in the foster care system. They testified at public hearings because they didn't have access to their own records, including their own SSN and previous home addresses. They helped get legislation passed that allowed children who had aged out of foster care access to their own records. Their involvement energized them and politicized them.
  • Florida First Amendment Foundation created a training video for middle and high school students. The group is currently working on a corresponding curriculum for teachers. View the video here.

NFOIC Summit: Fiscal transparency

Charles Glasser, global media counsel for Bloomberg News; James Nobles, legislative auditor for the State of Minnesota; and Rebecca Otto, auditor for the State of Minnesota spoke about the secrecy surrounding the bank bailout and other fiscal transparency issues. Jane Kirtley, Silha professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism & Mass Communication moderated. Here are the notes from this NFOIC Summit session:

Charles Glasser on the Bloomberg lawsuit:
  • Glasser explains the "great freak-out of 2008" as follows. A network of banks borrow money from the Federal Reserve each night. The money's distributed through a discount window. Bank X says we need $200,000 until tomorrow so our checks clear. That discount window number is public. It's released every morning by the Treasury. The number usually hovers between $1 and $4 million a night. For the federal government, that’s not big money.
  • Mark Pittman saw this number climbing. He noticed that the overnight window ballooned to $400 million inside two weeks. He called the Federal Reserve, which said that information is proprietary and can't be released. The Federal Reserve is lending public money to private banks but saying it doesn't have to disclose the criteria for collateral. What did the federal government take in return as a promise for your money? And on what terms was your money given and to whom?
  • Bloomberg filed the lawsuit in November, and it's still under advisement. The suit's been assigned to a friend-of-the-press judge in the southern district, so Bloomberg is hopeful.
  • Glasser said the fact that Bloomberg had to file this suit is something in and of itself that should raise your ire.
  • Great credit goes to Matt Winkler and Mike Bloomberg, who from day one told reporters and editors to do the right thing and they'd deal with the cost later. So far the cost is estimated at $125,000.
  • Two weeks after Bloomberg filed the lawsuit, FOX News announced that it was suing the federal government without any mention of Bloomberg. "The boat is always big enough," Glasser said. The more people involved, the better.
  • The best federal agency to comply with FOIA requests was the Department of Defense, and this was under the Bush administration. The Securities and Exchange Commission rated the worst. It's the one federal agency that was created to promote transparency and fairness in the market.
  • Bloomberg filed a FOIA letter to the Board of Governors for records on how much money was lent in a certain time period and under what terms. It resulted in a de facto denial. The board didn't respond. Bloomberg kept at them and received a response 30 days late. It said the material is considered proprietary trade secret and would cause harm to the parties involved. The Fed was basically saying if the public knew which banks were in trouble, the banks would get in trouble because of a run. In the meantime, the Troubled Asset Relief Program was announced. Bloomberg noticed that when a company announced that it was applying for TARP, its stock would jump. Investors felt better with a company that had the backing of the federal government. Therefore, this argument that knowing what banks were bailed out would cause competitive harm makes no sense.
  • Bloomberg is now hoping to at least prove that the Board of Governors is FOIA-able.
  • Bloomberg has launched a new iniative that has tasked all investigative reporters to use FOIA aggressively. In the Bloomberg terminals are built-in internal functions called FOIA Go, which provides guidelines and templates for FOI requests in most states and some nations.
Minnesota auditing:
  • Rebecca Otto oversees local government spending. She helped revamp reports by telling her staff that if no one understands them, we're not doing our job. She aimed to make them understandable and nonpartisan. Her office did that by creating easy-to-read executive summaries with the report's most important information and references to page numbers of the report.
  • Her office as overhauled the Web site so that audits and special investigations were easy to find online. She asked the media to sign up the her office's weekly newsletter, and she works closely with reporters to help them ensure their stories are accurate.
  • When her office audits local governments, the audits are public. It's not as transparent when private CPAs audit local government. Their papers are sometimes proprietary. The same thing with special investigations done by her office versus by private investigators.
  • James Nobles audits state government and outline four things needed for good government.
  1. Strong laws that require records to be open. Minnesota has a presumption that all government data is public unless specifically classified by law as otherwise. Nobles would like to get to the point where citizens would have access to raw data related to the state's accounting system. The problem is how to also protect for privacy.
  2. Active, vigorous citizen participation in government.
  3. A vigorous media. Nobles worries about the diminished resources of media and whether investigative work will continue.
  4. Paid agents of accountability. It's important in every state that there are independent agents to dig out data about how the government is spending money.

Great resources:

Saturday, June 06, 2009

NFOIC Summit: Texts, Lies and Video Tape

Paul Anger, editor and publisher of the Detroit Free Press spoke of the controversy surrounding former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and how the newspaper used FOI to tell the story. The Detroit Free Press won the Pulitzer Prize in the local reporting category for its coverage of the scandal. Here are the notes from his session at the NFOIC Summit:

Background on the issue:
  • Detroit lived with this nightmare for almost a year. Public records were hidden away literally under lock and key. In the end, $14 million of public money had gone down the drain. The paper's FOI lawsuit generated as much drama as Boston Legal. And there was a human tragedy. Kilpatrick was a dynamic man, father of three and rising star. Now he's a convicted felon who spent more than three months in jail and still doesn't get what he did wrong.
  • The scandal began six years ago when Kilpatrick started having an affair with Christine Beatty, who later became his chief of staff. But he didn't just have an affair. He and Betty fired three police officers in 2003. The officers then filed a whistle-blower suit accusing Kilpatrick of retaliation because of their actions in an internal affairs investigation of the mayor's security team.
  • Four years went by before the trial started. He and Beatty lied about their affair under oath. The jury didn't buy the mayor's story and awarded each of the two officers more than $2.5 million. The mayor vowed to appeal.
  • The attorney for the police officers obtained text message records through a subpoena.
  • The mayor agreed to a secret deal to settle the lawsuit in exchange for keeping the text messages private. They were to be locked in a safety deposit box and destroyed. Then suddenly, he announced that after searching his soul he had decided to settle the case for $8.4 million.
  • The Detroit Free Press filed an FOI request for all records related to the settlement. The paper filed a second request for confidential records.
  • The newspaper sued the city for all documents that had not been made public after the settlement.
  • The city released the public agreement signed but didn't disclose the secret agreement.
  • Through anonymous sources, the newspaper obtained 14,000 text messages. The messages disclosed the affair and the pair's intention to fire Gary Brown, one of the police officers in the whistle blower case.
  • Courts began unsealing documents.
  • Kilpatrick pleaded guilty in September to two felonies. Betty pleaded guilty to two felonies in December.
  • Kilpatrick faced charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice, misconduct in office and perjury.
Lessons from the Detroit Free Press coverage:
  • The Detroit Free Press realized it was sitting on a story that could tear apart the community.
  • Once it received the messages from anonymous sources, it had to ensure they were authentic. They used dates and other data to confirm that the electronic footprint was authentic.
  • Several of the messages contained sexually explicit information the newspaper didn't publish. Anger said the newspaper knew the story wasn't about sex. It didn't want the public to miss the point of the story. The newspaper also didn't want to add to the embarrassment of the families involved. Anger said some staffers and community members felt that the paper should release all the text messages. He said the paper wanted to make sure it didn't become the story, which would have been a danger if it had posted all the messages online. As the courts released more text messages, the paper did post some of those.
  • Journalism is alive and well on the Web. Journalism isn't dying, but it might be the demise if we cut reporters to the level where no investigative reporting is being done. Anger suggests cutting back on the expense of printing and physical delivery.
  • The Free Press included streaming of live events, photo galleries and video to its Web site. The Web traffic increased over 75 percent. The site received 4 million page views the day the mayor pleaded guilty.
  • Anger is in support of a federal shield law. He said sources never would have come forward without confidentiality. However, journalists should use anonymity rarely and always verify the information.
  • Technology provides powerful tools to put public documents online. The documents, videos and live streaming allowed people to decide for themselves if they believed the mayor.
  • The Free Press staff knew it would be accused of invading privacy. It tried to bullet-proof itself by organizing a group to "prosecute" each story on the issue and how the story was presented.
  • The Free Press has spent about 10 times per month what its legal budget really is. Gannett supported the paper's efforts.
  • When Detroit set up its contract with its third-party vendor to store text messages, the mayor drafted a memo warning city employees that their messages were public documents. The city no longer has an arrangement with this third party vendor. So messages are no longer being stored in this manner.
  • Anger says the real heroes in this situation were: Wayne County Prosecutor Kim Worthy, who considered the text messages public records; judges who ruled that the records should be released and ruled in favor of open records; Herschel Fink, the newspaper's attorney; and Barbara Wall, Gannett vice president and associate general counsel.
  • The newspaper took a financial risk in this project, especially because no advertisers wanted to be anywhere near these stories.
  • Anger did write some columns about the decisions being made regarding the coverage of this issue. The Web site included Q&As and live chats with the paper's investigative editor and the two main reporters, Jim Schaefer and M.L. Elrick.
  • Kilpatrick owes the city $1 million in restitution. He's currently living in a Dallas suburb and working at Covisint, a subsidiary of Compuware. He makes $120,000 a year and can earn up to $300,000. Initially he said he could only afford to pay $6 a month toward restitution. He was ordered to repay $6,000 a month. He has been late with payments.
  • The state is investigating whether Kilpatrick illegally used political campaign funds to pay $1 million to lawyers. He maintains that he didn't break any rules in doing so.
  • Kilpatrick also sued SkyTel, the city's former communications provider, for releasing the records.
  • For all current and former coverage, go here.
  • Beatty completed her three months in jail and remains without a job.
  • The Free Press' FOI lawsuit is still active. The newspaper has asked for more text messages. Kilpatrick has vowed to run for office again, and the reporters want to ensure they get all the facts about this scandal.

Mitchell Pearlman honored at NFOIC Summit

Congratulations to Mitchell W. Pearlman, who was selected by the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Society of Professional Journalists for their joint "Heroes of the 50 States: The Open Government Hall of Fame" award for 2009.

Pearlman is a lecturer in journalism at the University of Connecticut and long-time director of that state's FOI body. He served as the executive director of and general counsel for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission from 1975-2005, and he currently serves on the Board of Directors of both NFOIC and the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government. He was designated as FOIC's Executive Director Emertius in 2005.

The State Open Government Hall of Fame is open to anyone who has made a substantial, sustained and lasting contribution to open government or freedom of information within one particular state. Nominees may come from government, the media, the non-profit sector, the legal profesion or any other area of endeavor that involves citizen access to government records, meetings and procedures.

NFOIC Summit: Infrastructure coverage tips

James Shiffer, reporter and editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune; Tisha Thompson, investigative reporter at WTTG Fox 5 in Washington, D.C.; and Jaimi Dowdell, IRE training director and former computer-assisted reporting editor at St. Louis Post-Dispatch, discussed how to use FOI to inform the public about infrastructure issues. Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, moderated. Here's part two of the notes from their session at the 2009 NFOIC Summit:

Tips for infrastructure coverage:
  • Look at the annual report card put out by the American Society for Civil Engineers each year.
  • Keep the National Bridge Inventory and National Inventory of Dams database handy.
  • Use electronic databases to lead you to paper documents.
  • When looking at infrastructure records, contact state inspectors and civil engineers. They can help you analyze data so you don't make mistakes. If possible, first contact other reporters who have done similar stories in other cities.
  • The smaller the town or jurisdiction, the better chance you'll have of getting data. Bigger cities become savvier.
  • Ask for five years of inspection reports to notice problems that haven't been fixed.
  • Start with bridges and dams stories. River communities should look into levees.
  • Keep a list of those you request records from. Divide them into a naughty and nice list. Send Christmas cards to both. Be creative.
  • Go to your local transportation department and goggle what it has posted.
  • Look at the infrastructure in urban sprawl areas.
  • For a breaking news story, immediately go to the web and take screen shots of everything you can find about the bridge, dam, etc. Chances are that someone will take that info down.
  • When googling something, click on the Google cached link, which Tisha Thompson refers to as the "sexiest thing in the world." It shows you what a Web page looked like on a certain day.
  • You can also use Wayback Machine to find older versions of Web pages. Thompson used this to access the Web site of Eliot Spitzer's call girl after her site was removed. She was able to obtain information about her and her picture. Warning: This site doesn't delve deeply into federal and state government Web sites.
  • Use your stories to highlight the ridiculous excuses given for why information isn't made public.
  • Find the human element. Remind agencies that people have a right to this information. This is the people's money and safety at stake.
  • Find an inspector who cares and convince him/her to provide you with data or the records.
  • Get data any way you can, even if it's in a PDF file. Then, find someone who can figure out how to turn it into something usable.
  • Trick from Jaimi Dowdell: If a government agency says it can't export data because of the system it's using, just say "Well, that's terrible. But I have to give my editor a report back on why I couldn't get this data. What's the name of your software?" Then call that software company and tell them that their client says it can't export the data. Chances are, the software company will say its software can do back flips. It usually contacts the clients and essentially helps you get the data.
  • Conduct advanced searches in Google and search by file type.
  • Fish for data and know what's out there. Agencies can't claim records don't exist that way.
  • Consider looking into highway construction as well as asphalt and concrete contracts.
  • Look into data on electricity grids, fire hydrants, street light outages, pot holes, population growth, water main breaks, road construction, etc. Who's getting stimulus funding?
  • Request videos and photos in your FOI requests.
  • Find more tips here.

NFOIC Summit: FOI & Infrastructure

James Shiffer, reporter and editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune; Tisha Thompson, investigative reporter at WTTG Fox 5 in Washington, D.C.; and Jaimi Dowdell, IRE training director and former computer-assisted reporting editor at St. Louis Post-Dispatch, discussed how to use FOI to inform the public about infrastructure issues. Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, moderated. Here are some notes from their session at the 2009 NFOIC Summit:

Lessons from the Minneapolis I-35W Bridge collapse:
  • The Minneapolis I-35W Bridge collapsed at 6:05 p.m. a couple blocks from the Star Tribune office. James Shiffer said the Star Tribune had a suspicion that there was something in the bridge's history that would explain why the collapse occurred. Reporters used the National Bridge Inventory database as the basis for a front-page story. The bridge had been declared structurally deficient as recently as 2005.
  • On Aug. 2, the paper filed its two first formal requests related to inspection and maintenance records. Reporters followed up with four additional requests that month about contractors who worked on the bridge. Minnesota Government Data Practices Act requires that relevant corporate records of government contractors are public.
  • The conclusion was that the bridge had a design defect dated back 40 years. However, the paper did get Missouri Department of Transportation to acknowledge that part of it was bent. This was visible in photos, and at least one inspection noted the bending. You didn't have to be an engineer to notice.
  • This was the most studied bridge in Minnesota. A Star Tribune columnist pointed out that when it was announced that a bridge had collapsed, a lot of people probably didn't have to ask which one.
  • The Minnesota Department of Transportation was bombarded with records requests from journalists, lawyers, construction companies and victims. The organization did a good job early on in putting the inspection reports online. They couldn't argue that the information was protected because of homeland security. The bridge was gone.
  • Shiffer said MDOT was not good at providing notes, photos and internal documents. The newspaper gave MDOT a draft lawsuit, which got them going. The excuse was that the inspectors were too busy making sure other bridges were safe to answer questions or find records. You want us to do our jobs, right? they asked. Four months later, MDOT dumped data online, but the system was difficult to use. The newspaper reporters were not allowed into the office to view the files.
  • The National Transportation Safety Board completed its report, which included citations of documents and memos that MDOT hadn't turned over to the Star Tribune via FOIA and hadn't released on its database.
  • Jaimi Dowdell said the St. Louis Post-Dispatch used bridge databases to conduct its own analysis the first day after the collapse. Then, reporters began analyzing similar St. Louis bridges by requesting audit and inspection records.
  • Tisha Thompson noted that agencies shut down records after the Minnesota bridge collapse. They realized that the records tattled on them.
Lessons from bridges and dams coverage:
  • From FOIA documents, Tisha Thompson reported on a Kentucky bridge with rusted bolts and rotten pillars and rails, a Baltimore bridge with loose timber beginning to decay and a D.C. bridge with a tree growing out of its side. (The tree was slowly pulling the bridge apart.)
  • Thompson says stories on bridges and dams are the easiest to do because there are federal inspection requirements.
  • When a dam broke in St. Louis, Jaimi Dowdell's team did an immediate story based on the National Inventory of Dams database. They then requested reports from state studies. In doing so, they found a state clause that sets up an agricultural exemption for dams to be inspected. So many dams were not being inspected because they were under a certain height. It turned into a watchdog story. You never know where FOI paths can take you.
  • The dam database has been shut down to the public. It doesn't have data after 2002 because of homeland security concerns.
  • Access to records often depends on the agency and who's in charge. Thompson recalled that Virginia shut down records on all 13,000 of its bridges because of homeland security. She had no problems getting dam inspection reports from dams. It was the opposite in Maryland.
  • Thompson couldn't get data on a small bridge in the middle of nowhere because of homeland security concerns. Only 72 people passed over the bridge in a day. She explained the ridiculousness of this excuse. The furthest she got was being allowed to view documents in the office. She was not allowed to photocopy them.
  • Thompson said that although agencies fought her on the data on the bridges, they replaced every bridge she covered.
  • James Shiffer described one of his reporters who talked to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers concern a dam that the Minnesota hoped to get stimulus money to rebuild. The reporter got full access to inspection reports because the state wanted it fixed. However, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers refused to speak with the reporter regarding another dam next to the Ford Plant that might have water seeping underneath it. The corp used the homeland security excuse. Eventually an interview was reluctantly arranged.

Judge rules media have no more rights than general public at crime, accident scenes

If the general public doesn't have access to a crime or accident scene, journalists don't have a First Amendment right to that access either, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. This ruling came from U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer who dismissed the case of Oakland Tribune photographer Ray Chavez. Chavez was arrested after officers barred him from standing in the freeway to take photos of an accident.
A federal judge has dismissed a civil-rights lawsuit filed by a newspaper photographer who accused officers of illegally barring him from taking pictures at a freeway crash scene and handcuffing him when he persisted.

Oakland Tribune photographer Ray Chavez, 45, said police officers had interfered with his right as a member of the press to cover news, specifically a car crash and the emergency response time. He was "arrested and handcuffed without justification solely due to the exercise of First Amendment rights," said his suit, filed in U.S. District Court.

But in a ruling Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco dismissed the suit, saying the media have no First Amendment right to be at an accident or crime scene if the general public is excluded.

More here.

NFOIC Summit: Technologies you should be using

Lisa Skube, principal of Creaturekind Communications; Jeff Lennan, chief operating officer of Winning Mark; and Karl Pearson-Cater with MinnPost.com spoke about the technologies that can be used to strengthen state FOI coalitions. Here are the notes from their session at the 2009 NFOIC Summit:

  • The most fundamental technology to get higher visibility is syndication. RSS feeds will allow your content to be rebroadcast. Most free blogging tools already have these built in.
  • Make your RSS feed link visible on your Web site.
  • Free blogging tools include: WordPress, TypePad ($5 per month), LiveJournal, Blogger.
  • The key is getting people to link to your content. In that way, those people become your sales force.
  • Set up your feeds so that they are automatically posted on Facebook and Twitter.
  • When creating blogs, re-package information. If it's a story with a lot of jargon, simplify it. Localize it. Mention the location in the headline or first sentence. People are searching for information relevant to their area. Tag your location as well.
  • Headline writing is crucial. Sometimes Google News will pick up your headline, exclude the summary you wrote and use a picture from another site. Therefore, our headlines should be clear and straightforward. Avoid cute heads that refer to the first paragraph or the photo.
  • Post consistently.

Other technologies:
  • Sign up on Alltop.com. This is an aggregator of RSS feeds. Freedom of Information has a channel: http://freedom-of-information.alltop.com/
  • Create a presence for your coalition on LinkedIn. It's a site that's easy to use but often overlooked.
  • Choose one or two technologies to get your feet wet.
  • Using these technologies no longer requires a Webmaster. However, try to get a Web services person on your board or heavily involved. That person will know about all the latest, free tools and can point you in the right direction.
  • Get a Twitter account in your coalition's name.
  • Drive content back to your main site or blog. You want to inform using different technologies, but you don't want to lose visibility that this is your organization.
  • Sign up for Google analytics to find out what people are looking at online. Do more of what works.

Friday, June 05, 2009

NFOIC Summit: Coalition Sustainability

Barbara Peterson, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation and NFOIC president; Hyde Post, president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation; and Kathleen Richardson, executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Coalition discussed how to sustain state FOI coalitions at the 2009 NFOIC Summit. Here are the notes from their session.

Barbara Peterson
Lessons from the Florida First Amendment Foundation:
  • The Florida First Amendment Foundation started in 1985. For first 10 years, it was housed in Florida Press Association. The foundation started publishing Government-In-The-Sunshine manual. The AG's office complies it. The coalition publishes it and distributees it. It was the main source of income.
  • Peterson onvinced the board that the group should focus only on open-government issues. Nobody else in Florida did that. The group started a toll-free hotline for questions. Someone can call and get a quick question answered and a great quote. In the first year, 203 calls were placed. Now the line averages about 150 calls a month. Half of those come from citizens.
  • Initially membership was mainly from newspapers. Now private investigators, broadcasters (not many), lawyers, anyone can be a member. Membership is as low as $25 and high as $5000.
  • Because of the 501-c(3) status, there is a federal limitation on the amount of lobbying. So Peterson doesn’t lobby. She educates. An average of 100-150 exemptions bills are filed in Florida Legislature each year.
  • The coalition is in the position of responding to all proposals for new exemptions. When a bill comes up on House floor, someone will say what is the position of Florida First Amendation Foundation on this bill. The foundation is sked to review 95 percent of bills. If the coalition doesn’t like it, chances are it won’t go anywhere.
  • The coalition increased its profile dramatically by establishing a legislative alert list. The coalition can send out an e-mail alert about a bill to more than 300 newspaper editors and reporters in Florida. It makes the e-mails as outrageous as possible to get their attention.
  • The coalition also conducts about 50 seminars and trainings a year. Those who attend automatically become a member for one year. In turn, the coalition gets their contact information, and many pay for the $25 membership the following year.
  • The coalition has been talking to professional fundraisers after seeing a significant drop in every level of membership, even $25 members. One told Peterson that you should have three diverse, distinct sources of income.
  • The foundation is about to launch a direct-mail fundraising campaign with advice from a professional fundraiser who volunteered her services. It would have cost $10,000 at minimum to hire her. A 2 percent return is expected. The second step will be getting everyone in the foundation to identify those who have been important in the history of the organization and send them a personal letter pleading for money ($1000-$5000 or more).
  • Raise your profile.
  • Make sure reporters know you're a free resource.
  • Track your calls. Know who's calling you and where from? That way if you got 15 calls from one newspaper, use that data to convince the newspaper to donate to your coalition. Those free calls were a lot cheaper than placing a call to the newspaper's attorney.
  • Create a bullet list of talking points for board members when they're calling to ask others to donate.
  • Develop champions. Identify those in the state who really support the cause. Honor them with an award. The Friend of the First Amendment Award has now become somewhat of a competition.
  • Develop database of those who will continue to support organization.

Hyde Post

Lessons from the Georgia First Amendment Foundation:
  • The Georgia First Amendment Foundation started in 1994. There was no consistent voice for FOI or access issues in Georgia. This issue was number 6 on the state press association's list. The Atlanta Journal Constitutaion was arguing a case before the state supreme court. The justice said journalists are always saying access to information is for the people but where are these other people? It's always just the Atlanta Journal Consititution fighting for documents. That's when the newspaper realized it would be helpful to have an organization of not just journalists.
  • The first question: Who should be in the coalition? The group started with $5,000. To get diversity, it recruited some journalists (print and broadcast), journalism professors, law professors, media lawyers, librarians, intellectural freedom groups, like-minded public service groups (such as the ACLU, Common Cause) and JPF (just plain folks).
  • A lot of the funding from newspapers. Obviously, that's not so much the case for those starting off today. Law firms are a good source of funding. Grants both through NFOIC and local organizations (such as state bar associations) are also something to look into. Don’t become dependent on any single source of funding.
  • Pick a board of directors that includes a diversity of people with diverse skills. It's nice crucial to have a certain number of people who have money or can attract money.
  • The coalition's most successful programs in Georgia have been workshops programs and booklets. It's an educational organization. Its most important constitutency is people just being elected to public office or newly appointed deputies, newly elected school board members, etc.
  • The coalition produces a general citizen guide, one on school board records and is working on one on court access. Its board went to the attorney general and state sheriff association and asked them to coauthor the booklets. They didn't have to write it, just review it. However, the coaliton essentially had them approve the documents this way, which made it easier to get that material inserted into their training materials.
  • Get on regular list of newly elected magistrate judges. Show up during their training.
  • Focus and consistency is key.
  • Narrow the focus to what you can do well.
  • FOI people who FOI stuff. Find out who's requesting records. That's your target for membership.
  • Tell board members ahead of time that donating to the annual fund drive is a condition of being on the board.
  • Aim to be nonpartisan.

Kathleen Richardson Lessons from Iowa Freedom of Information Coalition:
  • The Iowa coalition began in 1976. Since early on, it had a strong alliance between print and broadcast journalists. One of its strengths is that it's had a broad base of support. This includes the state Associated Press bureau, state university journalism schools, Iowa Public Television, the League of Women Voters, Mediacom, the state high school press association, the state trial lawyers association, Iowa State Association of School Boards, attorneys interested in open records and meetings issues, etc.
  • The coalition has focused on institution memberships, not individual membership. The group have stayed small. Its dues are a couple hundreds dollars for institution members. In current economic situation, that’s turned out to be a good thing. The coalition hasn’t lost any members.
  • The group's mission is really educational. It publishing a handbook on open meetings and records laws that also includes FAQs about the laws. The publication is very popular and established the coalition as a neutral resource for information.
  • The coalition is the statewide coordinator for cameras in courtrooms. It has done informal trainings. In the past couple years, it started partnering with Association of Counties, League of Cities, the Attorney General's office, etc. to conduct training around state.
  • The key to success is that Richardson a professor at Drake Journalism School, which provided the coalition with office and Richardson's employment. This keeps the overhead low.
  • The coalition has been successful in the legislature in terms of heading off some bad things. It's a voice of wisdom in hearings.
  • Establish credibility by trying to project a neutral, nonadversarial image.
  • Look around state for successful models, such as state good government groups.
  • Look around creatively for allies. Media is just another economic interest in many ways. Legislators are looking for voices of real people. Seek business groups that might be potential allies. Rely more heavily on the library or League of Women Voters, for example.

NFOIC Summit: Arizona FOI roundup

State-by-state updates at the 2009 NFOIC Summit: David Cuillier of the Society of Professional Journalists provided a summary of Arizona's FOI news.
  • Police agencies are redacting names in police reports. Some just leave in the first name. They're redacting addresses. They use the excuse that they're protecting suspected criminals from identity theft.
  • The legislature proposed a policy whereby if someone requested records and didn't pick them up, that person would be banned for life for requesting records.
  • There is also a proposal to limit access to online court records to Arizona citizens.

NFOIC Summit: Delaware FOI roundup

State-by-state updates at the 2009 NFOIC Summit: Coralie Pryde of Delaware Coalition for Open Government provided a summary of her state's FOI news.
  • Delaware is deeply in need of a better FOI. There are access problems with the family courts and attorney general.
  • The agenda for the Sustainable Energy Utility Oversight Board is usually sparse. One can never tell when the board will go into executive session.
  • Delaware now has one foot in the door When the state FOI policy was developed, the legislature totally exempted itself. Sen. Karen Peterson helped get a stronger open government bill passed. It's now on the governor's desk, and we expect him to sign it. E-mails of legislators are off limits and some caucuses are off limits, but it's a real victory.