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.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Republican congressman proposes tracking FOIA requests

from The New York Times:
WASHINGTON — Representative Darrell Issa calls it a way to promote transparency: a request for the names of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens, business executives, journalists and others who have requested copies of federal government documents in recent years.

Mr. Issa, a California Republican and the new chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, says he wants to make sure agencies respond in a timely fashion to Freedom of Information Act requests . . .

But his extraordinary request worries some civil libertarians. It “just seems sort of creepy that one person in the government could track who is looking into what and what kinds of questions they are asking,” said David Cuillier, a University of Arizona journalism professor and chairman of the Freedom of Information Committee at the Society of Professional Journalists. “It is an easy way to target people who he might think are up to no good.”
Read more here.

Friday, January 28, 2011

DHS releases FOIA report, but questions remain

from Electronic Privacy Information Center:
The Department of Homeland Security has released the Freedom of Information Act Report for 2010. The report analyzes the processing of FOIA requests made throughout the year by each DHS component, detailing the disposition of each request, response times, and the number of backlogged requests.

DHS is under scrutiny for their policy of referring FOIA requests to political appointees before processing. The release of over 1,000 agency documents revealed a persistent agency practice of flagging FOIA requests from EPIC and other watchdog organizations for referral.
Read the rest here.

Knight FOI Fund case compels public records release in upstate NY

from NFOIC.org:
COLUMBIA, Mo. (January 27, 2011)—A New York judge, ruling in a case supported by a Knight FOI Fund grant, has ordered disclosure of records sought by a Web publisher and a community activist regarding a volunteer fire company.

But in the same 13-page ruling, Warren County (NY) Supreme Court Judge David B. Krogmann held that many of the meetings of the Chestertown Volunteer Fire Company are of a "social" or "private nature," and are not subject to the state's Open Meetings Law.

June Maxam, editor and publisher of The North Country Gazette, and Christine Hayes, a deputy zoning administrator and assistant assessor for the Town of Horicon, NY, who represented themselves in the lawsuit filed on September 15, indicated that they planned to appeal the ruling.

Noting that they had represented themselves and therefore had no attorney bills, Judge Krogmann also declined to award the two women reimbursement for their legal fees and expenses. As offset for the fee reimbursements Maxam and Hayes had sought, Krogmann ordered that copying charges for the records being sought be waived. Maxam disputes the judge’s finding that she and Hayes incurred no legal bills.

Open government advocates expressed dismay over portions of the ruling, although Maxam and Hayes will be getting the records that were at the heart of the legal case after Krogmann completes an in camera judicial review to allow redaction of exempt, personal or private information..

"If they choose to appeal as they say they will, I hope some member of the New York bar who believes in open government will step forward and aid these petitioners in their important legal battle," said Kenneth F. Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC).

"I know that finding volunteer legal representation is especially difficult when a judge has already ruled against granting fees and expenses. But there is much more at stake here than just a community squabble," Bunting added.

"It seems that the court did not thoroughly consider the breadth of the decision rendered by the state's highest court more than 30 years ago," said Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, a division of the Secretary of State's office that issues advisory opinions on open government matters.

Referring to a 1980 state Court of Appeals ruling in a case called Westchester Rockland Newspapers Inc. v. Kimball, Freeman added: "Based on that [Westchester] decision, it has been our view that meetings of volunteer fire companies are subject to the requirements of the Open Meetings Law."
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Corporate secrecy at issue in Supreme Court case

from OMB Watch:
In August 2004, SBC Communications admitted improperly charging for services under an FCC program to subsidize phone and Internet access for schools and libraries. (In 2005, SBC merged with AT&T.) SBC returned the money and paid an additional $500,000 to the government under the terms of a consent decree adopted in December 2004, in exchange for the FCC closing its investigation into the matter.

In April 2005, Comptel, a trade association whose members include AT&T competitors such as Sprint and Verizon, submitted a FOIA request for the FCC's investigation file. SBC opposed the request on the grounds that the records were exempt from release under FOIA's "personal privacy" provision. In August 2005, the FCC decided to release the records because "generally, businesses do not possess 'personal privacy' interests." SBC appealed the agency’s decision.


In November and December 2010, the government and AT&T filed their briefs in the case, along with Comptel and several amici curiae. "The court of appeals' decision is itself a singular outlier in an otherwise uniform body of more than 35 years of decisional law and commentary," the government argued in its brief. "A corporation itself can no more be embarrassed, harassed, or stigmatized than a stone."
Read the rest here.

SEC Inspector General reports of investigation

from Project on Government Oversight:
In recent years, investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Office of Inspector General (OIG) have exposed a wide range of serious misconduct, including the agency's failure to crack down on the Madoff and Stanford Ponzi schemes, retaliation against whistleblowers, conflicts of interest, revolving door abuses, the failure to take action against Bear Stearns, insider trading by SEC employees, and much more. Unfortunately, most of these reports are nowhere to be found on the SEC or OIG's website.

POGO has obtained many of the OIG's recent investigative reports through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and from other sources. We've made the reports searchable and are compiling them here as a resource to the public. Reports that have not been posted on the SEC or OIG's website are marked in red.
Read the rest here.

Horicon (NY) officials close door on open-government advocate's Town Hall visit

from PostStar.com:
The Horicon Town Board held what appeared to be an illegal meeting Wednesday to ban an event from Town Hall that was to feature the state's expert on the Freedom of Information and open meetings laws.

The "emergency" meeting was held by the board to rescind permission for local residents to host Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, for an open government discussion at Town Hall on Feb. 9.

The event has instead been moved to the Horicon fire station and will be held on the same date.

The controversy does not focus on Freeman, but rather on June Maxam, a Chester resident who helped organize the event. Maxam is publisher of the North Country Gazette, a website that is frequently critical of local government.


Freeman seemed taken aback Thursday at the developments, saying, "So what, who cares?" when told that Maxam's involvement was what prompted the Town Board to taken action.
Read the rest here.

NBC: U.S. can't link accused Army private to Assange

from msnbc.com:
U.S. military officials tell NBC News that investigators have been unable to make any direct connection between a jailed army private suspected with leaking secret documents and Julian Assange, founder of the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.

The officials say that while investigators have determined that Manning had allegedly unlawfully downloaded tens of thousands of documents onto his own computer and passed them to an unauthorized person, there is apparently no evidence he passed the files directly to Assange, or had any direct contact with the controversial WikiLeaks figure.


Assange told msnbc TV last month that WikiLeaks was unsure Army PFC Bradley Manning is the source for the classified documents appearing on his site.
Read the rest here.

Monday, January 24, 2011

MnCOGI accepting nominations for 2011 John R. Finnegan FOI Award

from Minnesota Coalition on Government Information:
The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information is soliciting nominations for a person, group of people or organization that demonstrates a commitment to the power of information.

Past recipients include Colleen Coghlan, a college librarian outspoken on open access, the Urban Coalition, a Minneapolis organization that uses information to build a community, and Reed Anfinson, the publisher of a weekly Minnesota newspaper who keeps a constant vigil for open access in his hometown and across the nation. Information about past recipients can be found on the Finnegan FIO Award page.

MnCOGi presents the John R. Finnegan FOI Award each year. It´s named in honor of the former editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press whose lifelong commitment to open government and the public´s right to know exemplifies MnCOGI´s mission.
Read the rest here.

"Right to know" fracking bill debated in Montana

from Montana Conservation Voters:
HELENA, Mont. - A debate on company secrets versus the public's right to know is set for today in the Montana Legislature. A hearing is being held on a proposal that would require oil and gas companies to provide a list of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing ("fracking"), in the interest of protecting residents and first-responders at accidents near fracking projects.

Sharon Sweeney Fee, a Livingston nurse, is testifying.

"We want something available, not unlike what we have available on train cars now, so when anybody needs to know - because there has been accident - they can look and see what these people have been exposed to."
Read the rest here.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Oregon, Washington consider public records overhaul

from Oregon Public Broadcasting:
The Attorneys General of Oregon and Washington are asking state lawmakers to make public documents more accessible.

A pair of bills in Salem and a hearing Thursday in Olympia come in response to critics who say obtaining government records is too expensive and takes too long.

Oregon Attorney General John Kroger wants to create strict deadlines for public agencies to respond to records requests.

His proposal would also cap the amount that agencies can charge, and it would reduce the types of information that are exempt from public disclosure requirements.
Read the rest here.

Open-government initiative marks two-year milestone

from nextgov:
Two years ago Friday, on his first day in office, President Obama issued a memo aimed at making government operations more transparent. While open government advocates have largely panned the effort over what they call toothless policies, a regulatory compliance initiative announced Tuesday is giving some of those critics new hope the administration's transparency objectives eventually might be realized.


To gather additional perspective on the future of Obama's open government effort, Nextgov interviewed Don Tapscott, co-author of the new book Macrowikinomics (Portfolio, 2010), a sequel to the 2006 best-seller Wikinomics. Macrowikinomics examines the way networked communities are transforming the way governments operate.
Read the rest here.

High court hears argument in FOI corporate privacy case

from Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:
It was a lesson in vocabulary during oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court held Wednesday morning, as the high court wrestled over the meaning of the word "personal." The case, FCC v. AT&T, concerned a federal Freedom of Information Act request for documents regarding a Federal Communications Commission investigation into AT&T's participation in a federal telecommunications build-out program. AT&T self-reported that it may have overcharged the government for its services.

The question before the Supreme Court on Wednesday was whether Exemption 7(c) of the FOIA recognizes and protects the "personal privacy" of corporate entities in the same manner as it does for individuals. Exemption 7(c) states "records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information . . . could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
Read the rest here.

See more analysis here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

US officials privately say WikiLeaks damage limited

from Reuters:
WASHINGTON, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Internal U.S. government reviews have determined that a mass leak of diplomatic cables caused only limited damage to U.S. interests abroad, despite the Obama administration's public statements to the contrary.

A congressional official briefed on the reviews said the administration felt compelled to say publicly that the revelations had seriously damaged American interests in order to bolster legal efforts to shut down the WikiLeaks website and bring charges against the leakers.

"I think they just want to present the toughest front they can muster," the official said.

But State Department officials have privately told Congress they expect overall damage to U.S. foreign policy to be containable, said the official....

"We were told (the impact of WikiLeaks revelations) was embarrassing but not damaging," said the official....
Read the rest here.

Court rules government can continue to suppress detainee statements describing torture and abuse

from the ACLU:
WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court ruled that the government can continue suppressing transcripts in which former CIA prisoners now held at Guantánamo Bay describe abuse and torture they suffered in CIA custody. The ruling came in an ACLU Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit to obtain uncensored transcripts from Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs) used to determine if Guantánamo detainees qualify as "enemy combatants."

“The American people have a right to know what the government has done in their name, and these transcripts, which include the direct testimony of the victims themselves, are essential to a full understanding of the Bush administration’s torture program,” said Ben Wizner, Litigation Director of the ACLU National Security Project, who argued the appeal for the ACLU. “The court’s decision undermines the Freedom of Information Act and condones a cover-up. These transcripts are being suppressed not to protect national security, but to shield former government officials from accountability.”

The ACLU lawsuit sought transcripts of statements made by Guantánamo prisoners concerning the abuse they allegedly suffered while in U.S. custody. While the CIA released heavily-redacted versions of the documents in June 2009, it continues to suppress major portions of the documents, including detainees' allegations of torture.
Read the rest here.

Friday, January 14, 2011

NFOIC executive director delivers keynote address at Washington State Open Government Conference

from the Seattle PostGlobe:
Passionate about the need for citizens and reporters to freely get information from government agencies, former P-I associate publisher Ken Bunting is back to town to give a keynote speech at the Washington State Open Government Conference on Saturday. There, you can learn your rights to open government and you can get practical tips to exercise your rights at all levels -- federal, state and local governments.

So we caught up with Bunting, now executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, to get his thoughts on just how lousy things have become -- or not.

It's certainly a tough time to get government information in some quarters: The White House has been under the gun on science integrity and openness, and some reporters complain time and time and time again of incidences of being denied information.
Read the rest here.

New York Congressman asks Treasury to blacklist Wikileaks' Assange

from Datamation:
A prominent House lawmaker is ratcheting up pressure on the Obama administration to take action against Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange.

In a letter delivered this week, Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, asked Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to add Assange to the department's Specially Designated National and Blocked Persons List, or SDN List, a move that would prohibit U.S. businesses and individuals from doing business with the whistleblower site or anyone associated with it.

The SDN List is a registry maintained by Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control that seeks to impose sanctions against individuals and companies associated with targeted foreign countries, or independent entities that have been identified as criminal operations, such as terrorists or drug traffickers.

King and other lawmakers have warned that Wikileaks' publication of a cache of secret State Department documents, many relating to confidential conversations between diplomats and local informants, puts the lives of U.S. operatives and their sources in danger.
Read the rest here.

Read about Geithner's response here.

National Freedom of Information Act Hall of Fame

from the First Amendment Center:
The right to know about the actions of government is now an important part of America’s democratic heritage.

The legal basis of this right was established on July 4, 1966, when President Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act. In 1974, FOIA was strengthened with the passage of key amendments. A new measure, which would apply FOIA principles to electronic records, has been passed by House and Senate committees in the 104th Congress.

Journalists have used the act for more than three decades to generate thousands of news stories, including some of the most important exposés of our time. Using FOIA, journalists have held government accountable, exposed crime, and helped shape American public policy in major ways.

Many people inside the government, legislators as well as enlightened federal administrators, contributed to FOIA’s creation and implementation. Others, including presidents and some in Congress, have unsuccessfully sought to weaken FOIA. In part, it has been the vigilance of news organizations and journalists, supported by enlightened federal leaders, that has preserved the act.
Read the rest here.

Sunlight Weekly Round-Up: Gov 2.0 for better governing

from The Sunlight Foundation:
... Gov 2.0 guru Tim O'Reilly encourages us to look at it as “government as a platform." In fact, in his "What does Government 2.0 mean to you?" he gives citizens the opportunity to literally define it in their terms and be comfortable with how they see it working for them. This is why the latest blogosphere excitement about upcoming Gov 2.0 activities in various states make me want to share it with you.

If the enthusiasm with which this year's conferences have been organized is anything to go by, then we can conclude by saying that the concept has succeeded in grabbing the attention it deserves, reaffirming O'Reilly's words that government can become a platform of, for and by the people.
Read the rest here.

Register now for National FOI Day conference

from the First Amendment Center:
WASHINGTON — The 13th annual National Freedom of Information Day Conference will be held Wednesday, March 16, at the Knight Conference Center at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.

Hosted each year by the First Amendment Center, the conference brings together open records advocates, government officials, judges, lawyers, librarians, journalists, educators and others to discuss timely issues related to transparency in government and public access to official records.

The program is conducted in partnership with the American Library Association, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, OMB Watch, OpenTheGovernment.org, and the National Security Archive at George Washington University; and in cooperation with the annual Sunshine Week initiative sponsored by the American Society of News Editors.
Read the rest here.

Judge says government need not disclose air traveler security images

from SecurityInfoWatch.com:
A federal judge in Washington has ruled the Department of Homeland Security can keep from public view 2,000 "whole-body" images of air travelers screened at checkpoints.

The decision is a setback for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which had sued the government for release of material to determine how the technology would impact privacy and civil liberty concerns.

But Judge Ricardo Urbina, in a 15-page opinion issued Wednesday, said the Homeland Security Department has no obligation under the Freedom of Information Act to disclose the images or related training materials.
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Richmond police drop demand for documents

from The Washington Post:
The Richmond Police Department is dropping its demand for the return of dozens of internal documents it provided to a group called Richmond Copwatch, a week after filing suit in Richmond Circuit Court seeking an emergency protective order.

The 600 pages of documents were supplied last month, at a cost of $89.25, after a Freedom of Information Act request by an anarchist who uses the name "Mo Karn," short for "Mo Karnage."

Richmond police turned over materials such as their Emergency Operations Plan, the Homeland Security Criminal Intelligence Unit Operating Manual and the Mobile Command Center Operating Manual.

Karn then put them online.
Read the rest here.

NY union to appeal release of teacher rankings

from All Headline News:
Teachers in New York plan to appeal a court decision allowing the state education department to release their names and rankings, citing privacy and flawed data.

The United Federation of Teachers will seek a review of the ruling of State Supreme Court Judge Cynthia Kern on the release of performance reports of 12,000 teachers.

Kern issued her decision on Monday, saying, "It was not arbitrary and capricious for the DOE to find that the privacy interest at issue is outweighed by the public's interest in disclosure."
Read the rest here.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Michigan court ruling on privacy may hurt public's right to know

opinion from the Detroit Free Press:
In one of the last acts of its short-lived Democratic majority, the Michigan Supreme Court did some potential damage to the public's right to know, in a ruling about the privacy of what public employees do on public time with publicly provided communications systems.

The court ought to reconsider this decision before somebody tries to hide behind it to thwart the Michigan Freedom of Information Act, a law that's intended to make sure the public can know how public business is being conducted and whether public office is being abused.

The Supreme Court voted 4-3 on Dec. 29 -- with Democrats, including one lame duck, forming the majority -- not to review a Court of Appeals decision denying public access to e-mails that Howell Public Schools employees sent on the district's computer system.
Read the rest here.

Richmond police want anarchists to turn over manuals

from Style Weekly:
The Richmond Police Department and the City of Richmond have filed suit against a woman who represents a local anarchist collective called Wingnut, asking her to return police policy manuals that the department released to her group.

In the complaint, the Richmond Police Department puts the blame on program manager Angela Harrison, saying she “exceeded the authority granted to her” in responding to a Freedom of Information Act request from the anarchist group.

The department says in the suit that it shouldn’t have disclosed the police manuals, which cover emergency policies on crowd management, operation of the mobile command center and a host of other police tactics and policies -- including policies on mounted units and Segway-riding officers.
Read the rest here.