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, May 27, 2010

NCAA appeal struck down in Tallahassee

TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Supreme Court refused to hear the NCAA’s appeal that documents related to an academic fraud case are not public record.


However, because the document was a communication with a state agency, a judge found it was subject to Florida public records law.

More here.

Proposed changes in public records request law raises concerns

PRESCOTT - A question over what constitutes a "voluminous" request for public records caused a postponement this week in the Prescott City Council's request for a change in state law.

During their voting session on Tuesday, council members agreed to pull the resolution concerning public record requests from the list of proposed law changes it is submitting to the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.


The postponement occurred after two local residents - Tom Slaback and former City Councilman Robert Luzius - urged the city to reconsider a resolution that seeks to change state law to allow cities to "recover actual costs" when responding to requests for public records.

More here.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

FBI releases investigation files on John Murtha

PITTSBURGH -- FBI files involving extortion and other threats that were made against the late U.S. Rep. John Murtha and corruption cases in which Murtha was investigated are now available for public viewing.

Among the FBI's files are a threatening letter that was sent to Murtha in protest of the Gulf War in 1991 and a 43-page e-mail written by someone who called for Murtha's assassination.


The 800-plus pages of documents were released in response to a Freedom Of Information Act request by WTAE and other news organizations.

More here.

Report: Threats to lawmakers increase

Threats against members of Congress have increased 300% this year as lawmakers delve into a host of complicated issues in a particularly charged political environment, Politico reports.

The story, based on FBI documents requested by Politico under the Freedom of Information Act, describes the cases in detail, including a threat made against North Carolina Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler by a 70-year-old voter with "a history of mental illness and a cache of guns" over President Obama's economic stimulus.

More here, and the original Politico article can be found here.

Public records workshop held

The East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists had a workshop Monday, May 24, on open records. The workshop was for journalists, bloggers, and anyone else interested in what kinds of public records are available and how to get them.

The presenter was David Cuillier, Ph.D., chairman of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee and SPJ newsroom trainer. He is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he teaches public affairs reporting, computer-assisted reporting and access to public records. He's blogging his 45-day speaking tour at Access Across America.

More here.

Newly released FBI papers reveal investigation of columnist

The FBI launched three investigations into the source of classified material made public by newspaper columnist Robert Novak in the 1980s, newly obtained records show.

Previously secret FBI files reveal that the bureau pursued his sources after reading columns by Novak and his writing partner, Rowland Evans, that were published in The Washington Post in 1983 and again in 1987.


The revelations are contained in 64 pages of files released Wednesday to The Washington Post in response to an open records request filed after Novak's death in August 2009.

More here.

Corporations do not have personal privacy rights in government records, groups tell US Supreme Court

WASHINGTON - May 25 - Corporations should not be able to claim a personal privacy right to try to shield government documents about them from public view, six public interest organizations told the U.S. Supreme Court late Monday.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, the groups urged the court to grant review of and overturn a lower court decision holding that corporations may invoke "personal privacy" as a legal basis for claiming that embarrassing records should be withheld from public view.

The case is Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T. The groups filing the brief - Public Citizen, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the National Security Archive, OpenTheGovernment.org, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press - urge the court to review a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

More here.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Sunlight Labs creates catalog of government databases

From Federal Computer Week, comes this note:

The Sunlight Labs open government group recently debuted its free online open-source collection of federal, state and local government databases in the United States.

Despite its ambitious name, the group’s National Data Catalog currently only has links to data from the federal Data.gov Web site, as well as data from the District of Columbia and the state of Utah.

Sunlight’s goal is to continue to post more databases and links to federal, state and local datasets. The national data catalog platform consists of a Web application and an Application Programming Interface. Users can register to obtain their own dashboard allowing them to search and examine the data.

For more, see the FCW post.

Missouri auditor documents open government issues

From the office of Susan Montee, Missouri State Auditor, comes a new audit summarizing "a variety of audit issues and recommendations regarding the Sunshine Law, Chapter 610, RSMo, and other issues related to meeting minutes, was compiled using audit reports issued between January 2008 and December 2009. These issues were addressed in 59 audit reports."

The issue of closed meetings, proper documentation for closed meetings, posting of meeting agendas, and public access to records are addressed in this report, as are recommendations regarding the Sunshine Law.

For more, visit the Introduction and then the complete audit report (PDF).

Thursday, May 13, 2010

FOI Summit: Nisbet Delivered Keynote Speech

Miriam M. Nisbet, director of the Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives and Records Administration, delivered the keynote address at the National Freedom of Information Coalition Summit. (Photo by Michael T. Martinez)

Miriam Nisbet discussed her role and efforts as the inaugural director of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), National Archives and Records Administration, the new FOIA ombudsman office created by the 2007 amendments to the federal Freedom of Information Act. Nisbet discussed OGIS's two statutory missions - to provide mediation services and to review agency compliance with FOIA and provide recommendations to Congress and the President for improvements.

"Having an administration that is promoting open government, really pushing for agencies to work in open ways, and a president that knows how to spell FOIA is extremely helpful," said Nisbet. "Talking about changing the culture, to think about openness, not making access and afterthought or added layer. Even having that talked about at the leadership level is a huge improvement in the federal government."

Nisbet said her small staff mediates FOIA disputes as they come in and has handled roughly 200 cases since the office opened in September 2009.

OGIS also works with a designated FOIA liaison at every federal agency who is tasked with tracking the status and scope of FOIA requests and to handle disputes. OGIS is providing dispute resolution training to these new FOIA liaisons.

When Bill Lueders of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council asked about the "culture of contempt for the public's right to know" that pervades in Washington, Nisbet acknowledged it is a problem. "I really can't argue with you," Nisbet said. “Not everyone has gotten the word that you can make discretionary releases of information that is exempt. We’re working on that.”

Nisbet also addressed concerns that OGIS was not an independent institution. “We feel pretty comfortable that we are independent," said Nisbet, who said she has not had one inkling that OGIS is not independent. "So far, so good,” she quipped.

As a means for identifying issues at the agency level, Nisbet cited the agency annual reports and new reports required from the new FOIA liaisons as a means to establish metrics for the scope of FOIA issues and problems. OGIS will also be looking at technological improvements to be made, and will have a database expert joining their staff shortly, said Nisbet.

Overall, Nisbet said she views the ombudsman piece of the overall mission as striving "to be a resource for anyone who needs assistance in making the FOIA work better."



FOI Summit: FOI Litigation

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (clockwise from top), Andrea Flynn Mogensen, sole practitioner specializing in open-government litigation, Ashley Messenger, media lawyer, and Ginger Stanley, executive director of Virginia Press Association/Virginia Press Services, Inc., spoke about the state of the news media economy and the cost of litigation. (Photo by Michael T. Martinez)

The FOI Summit session "FOI Litigation" discussed the state of the news media economy relative to FOI advocacy and the Knight FOI Fund. Here are notes from the session:

  • Dalglish expressed the concern that news organizations aren't paying for litigation and precedent now, but are simply trying to stay alive. She is concerned that local governments have figured out that the news media cannot afford to fight for public records. Dalglish reminded attendees, "You have to get involved in the process, nobody else is going to take care of it."
  • Stanley said she works to help build coalitions of organizations that will fight for FOI access and share litigation expenses. Stanley said the true danger of not challenging public bodies on their interpretations of the law is that we end up with law with no teeth.
  • Messenger said reporters still find it is easier to get a document leaked from an internal source than to request the same document through a public records request.
  • Messenger challenged news organizations to fight for access on principal as a way of establishing credibility for the organization. She commended the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star for training its reporters on the law, encouraging reporters to make public records requests, and backing up its reporters when requests are denied. Messenger said thinking of FOIA as part of the business plan not only establishes credibility, but it also minimizes fights on future responses as the governmental entities know that the news organization will fight for public records access.
  • Messenger said the most common error she sees are poorly drafted public records requests. She said requests must be strategically planned and narrowly defined. She said reporters and news organizations must be mindful of the costs associated with requests for e-mails and text messages.
  • Mogensen acknowledged that the battle of resources is often what is at stake in FOI litigation. She said fee-shifting statutes are a powerful tool for citizens. The panelists discussed the need for lobbying efforts to allow for fee-shifting in states where it is not required or in Louisiana, where the unsuccessful FOI litigant must pay for the government's litigation expenses as well.
  • Regarding privacy concerns in public information, Stanley suggested government does not need to collect so much information about people; instead, the government should collect only information that is necessary and required by law, she said. As a press association, Stanley said she tries to ease fears that the media will help identity thieves, but said governmental agencies should keep basic information like names, addresses, and partial social security numbers open to the public.
  • Dalglish urged news organizations to include daycare center operators, employers, landlords, and information businesses like Lexis and Westlaw in suits where the practical obscurity argument arises.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

FOI Summit: Transparency in the Digital Age: The report card, thus far

Thomas Sussman, director of the Governmental Affairs Office of the American Bar Association (clockwise from top left), J.H. Snider, president of iSolon.org, John Wonderlich, policy director of The Sunlight Foundation, and David Donald, data editor for The Center for Public Integrity, spoke on access to information in the digital age. (Photo by Michael T. Martinez)

Attendees heard from experts breathlessly working to transform access to governmental information. Here are notes from the FOI Summit session "Transparency in the Digital Age: The report card, thus far":
  • Donald discussed the Obama administration's efforts to make data available. He said government should be doing two main things to make data available: (1) to make raw data available; and (2) to make machine-readable data available. Donald said government should be working to "wholesale" data, not "retail" data. For example, when the government provides a website that allows the user to search for data in an active server page, Donald said the government acts as a retailer. Instead, the government should provide all of the raw data at once, like a wholesaler. Donald praised previous efforts to win the format battle, saying machine readable data has become more of the norm than pdf documents.
  • Donald recommended attendees explore the Gov 2.0 Expo website and the everyblock.com website, which provides unfiltered data for local communities, although Donald caution that the data on the site may have dirty data problems.
  • Wonderlich outlined how the public citizen online can be relevant to government and the systemic changes necessary to obtain affirmative disclosure of public information. Wonderlich noted legislative efforts like Faster FOIA and improved training of FOIA officers could improve the culture among the compliance community.
  • Snider focused on the "glass half-empty" with respect to the relationship between open government and information technology. Snider suggested the Open Government Directive has "severe weaknesses" like a poor definition for "high-value datasets." Snider posited that a "principal-agent" framework and a "conflict of interest ontology" would improve access and interpretation of publicly available data.

FOI Summit: Freeman Honored with Heroes of the 50 States Award

Robert J. Freeman was honored by the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Society of Professional Journalists with the Heroes of the 50 States: The Open Government Hall of Fame Award for 2010. (Photo by Michael T. Martinez)
Robert Freeman received the highest and most meaningful award for state and local freedom of information work to honor his work with the Committee on Open Government in New York. Freeman said his greatest achievement has been that the state's Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) has become part of the culture, noting that New Yorkers use "FOIL" as a noun and verb without knowing what it stands for, but knowing that FOIL allows them to get public information.

FOI Summit: Davis Recognized for Service to NFOIC

Hyde Post of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation presented outgoing executive director Charles Davis, left, with a statue to commemorate his years of service to the National Freedom of Information Coalition. (Photo by Michael T. Martinez)

FOI Summit: Coalition Sustainability and Fundraising

Chris Pabon, director of development for the Project on Government Oversight (clockwise from top), Katherine Sawyer, fundraiser, Douglas Stewart, director of foundation relations with the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, and Jennifer Cox, development director for Taxpayers for Common Sense, discuss fundraising strategies and tactics for non-profit organizations. (Photo by Michael T. Martinez)

Because the Knight FOI Fund to support Freedom of Information litigation requires grants of more than $5,000 to receive matching funds, the panelists spoken on tips and best practices for fundraising. Here are notes from the FOI Summit session, "Coalition Sustainability and Fundraising":
  • There are four steps to fundraising, according to Cox. "Plan, plan, plan, work your plan."
  • "If you don't ask for money, you won't get it," reminded Pabon. Pabon emphasized the need to ask for support for your organization. He suggests adding an ask in the signature line of your e-mail, such as "Please support us in our work."
  • Cox added that involving people in the work of your organization makes it easier to ask for money. Share the vision of your work and show donors how your organizations have common goals and ambitions, reminded Cox. Pabon suggested sending donors a small note or e-mail showing them what you are doing with their money.
  • "Thank before you bank," reminded Cox. Remember that a person or an institution gave you money. Pabon said the thank you note conveys the image and impression of your organization, and as such, it should be timely, sincere, and typo-free.
  • Cox highlighted the importance of diversifying your donors, and argues against going back to the same donors time and again. Cox also pointed out that small gifts can add up, and suggested asking for support from little and big donors.
  • "People have the right to say no," said Cox. If you are rejected, do not try to change their minds, but simply keep them updated about your work and move on.
  • With respect to fundraising from foundations, Stewart said there's no magic bullet and reminded attendees that it's "long work" in which the grant proposal is the last step, not the first.
  • "Less is more" in institutional fundraising, said Stewart. Remember that the people tasked with reading grant proposals are bombarded with proposals. Keep a letter of inquiry short no more than two pages in length. Pabon suggested using an appropriate font and margins to make the letters earsy to read, and put in the first paragraph who you are, what you're asking for, and why. Pabon also recommended using bullet points for deliverables, and closing with a paragraph that identifies other donors who are supporting your organization.
  • Stewart reminded attendees to network with other grantees of the foundation. He called this technique the "press the flesh policy."
  • Sawyer advised attendees to be thoughtful and strategic with respect to events. "If you don't have to do an event, don't," she advised. "It's a lot of work and details." Like letters of inquiry, Stewart said less is more with events also. She advised attendees to consider smaller, more frequent events that allow for more quality time with the donors than larger, annual events. "It's not about dollars," added Cox. "You spend money to meet people" and then follow-up after the face-to-face interaction.
  • The panelists favored "house parties," a small dinner or cocktail party that allows the executive director of your organization to introduce the organization to 5 - 10 potential donors in one to two hours. The house party should end with a pitch from the organizer along the lines of "If you love what we're doing, please support our work."
  • Be strategic about selecting a host for a house party, though. Pabon said the host is "key" to a successful house party. Others suggested inviting guests to the house party who would want to network with each other (e.g., local lawyers and business owners).
  • The panelists reminded attendees not to trim development expenses. Development work should be viewed as an investment, not an expense, said Pabon.
  • Finally, the panelists encouraged attendees not to give up or get discouraged. "A rejection once is not final," said Pabon. Just keep following up!
  • The panelists recommended Kim Klein's article, "The Ten Most Important Things You can Know about Fundraising" available from the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training.

Friday, May 07, 2010

U.S. Forest Service Employees on "Stand-Down" from Talking to the Media

The Rural Blog brings us this post about the U.S. Forest Service prohibiting its law enforcement and investigations (LEI) employees from speaking to local media without approval from Washington. The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility obtained a memo outlining the policy, which critics say stifles access to government records.

"Until further notice all LEI employees are on stand-down from communicating with local and/or national media contacts without clearance from the Director, LEI and Press Office, Media desk in the Washington Office," wrote David Ferrell, the agency's LEI director in the Sept. 1, 2009 memo.

ProPublica Challenges U.S. Supreme Court Assertion

ProPublica decided to challenge a premise in the U.S. Supreme Court majority opinion of the Citizens United case, which overturned limits on corporate election spending . Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "With the advent of the Internet, disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters."

ProPublica tested this assertion by looking at fundraisers held by 16 lawmakers at two Bruce Springsteen concerts last year. "While we found many records online, none of them clearly identified those who attended the fundraisers or how much money was raised. At best, we ended up with a handful of possible attendees. At worst, we were left with no clues at all," wrote Sebastian Jones of ProPublica.

For details, click here.

Media Organizations Lobby to Quash Certain E-mail Disclosures

John Cook, a senior national reporter and blogger for Yahoo! News, is miffed at The Associated Press for what he says appears to be collaboration with the government to deny a New York Freedom of Information Law request that seeks e-mails between New York Gov. David Paterson's former communications director, former press secretary, and various news organization representatives. Cook reports the Hearst Corporation objected to the release of the e-mails on grounds that confidential sources could have been revealed in the e-mails.

Cook claims David Schulz, a media attorney in private practice, had been making inquiries whether New York's journalist shield law could serve as a possible justification for denying the FOIL request. Cook quotes Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for a Free Press as describing the government's invocation of the shield law to protect a journalist's sources as "an almost comical inversion of the law's intended purpose -- to protect journalists from the government."

Read more here.

Disputing the Claim that FERPA Applies to all University Documents

The general counsel for Central Michigan University redacted several pieces of "directory information" when responding to a FOIA request by Central Michigan Life for all FOIA requests submitted to the university from July 1, 2009 to Feb. 2, 2010. Nearly 21 percent of the 43 FOIA requests had information redacted on grounds of protecting citizens from "an unwarranted invasion of their privacy" and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

Chairwoman of the Society of Professional Journalists FERPA committee Carolyn Carlson said schools tend to "be very creative in the way they misuse FERPA," disagreeing with the university general counsel's position that every piece of paper held by the university is an educational record.

For more, click here.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

NASA Ranks First in an Audit of Agency Open Government Plans

OpenTheGovernment.org, using a team of volunteers from non-profit groups, academia, and other organizations, conducted an audit of the strongest and weakest agency Open Government Plans. The Obama administration's Open Government Directive required executive agencies to develop and publish Open Government Plans by April 7. The results of the independent audit rank NASA at the top of its list, and the Justice Department at the bottom.

For more information, click here.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Judicial Watch: White House Visitor Logs are Subject to the FOIA

Judicial Watch, a public interest organization that has sued seeking White House visitor logs from January 20, 2009 to the present, is taking the Justice Department to task for a statement the Department made in an April 21 court filing. The Justice Department claimed White House visitor logs are not subject to the FOIA, arguing cases cited by Judicial Watch in its Motion for Partial Summary Judgment were "incorrectly decided" and that releasing the logs would compromise national security.

Judicial Watch maintained that the visitor logs are subject to FOIA as they are "created by" the U.S. Secret Service and that they remain "under agency control."

For more information, click here.

"Limiting Knowledge in a Democracy" Social Research Conference Rescheduled

The New School's Social Research Conference "Limiting Knowledge in a Democracy" has a rescheduled date, May 27, 2010, after heavy snowfalls canceled February sessions. The event features award-winning journalists, distinguished scholars, and policy makers who will examine how the U.S. government and other political and cultural institutions distort or affect the flow of information. Anthony Romero will speak.

For more information, click here.