FOI Advocate Blog

The NFOIC open government blog is a compendium of original concepts and analysis as well as ideas, edited excerpts and materials from a variety of sources. When the information comes from another source, we will attribute it and provide a link. 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.

For Advocate posts prior to July, 2011, visit

April 14, 2014 8:10 AM

A resolution has been reached in the case of an Iron County Medical Care Facility (ICMCF) resident who filed a civil lawsuit against the facility, alleging that it had not lawfully complied with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Enacted federally in 1966, FOIA allows citizens to obtain access to public records with some exceptions. The state of Michigan passed its own version of FOIA in 1976.

ICMCF's attorney Kenneth Lane had claimed that resident Patrick Ward's prolific FOIA requests to the facility, which amounted to about one per day, were "overly broad" and "overly burdensome." As a result, he advised ICMCF to discontinue responding to the requests. Continue>>>

FOIA, Montana
April 8, 2014 12:04 PM

A report published by the nonprofit Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch), has ranked 15 agencies on how well they are implementing the Freedom of Information Act, and it gave seven of them failing grades.

The report rated agencies on: how quickly they responded to requests, how quickly it granted requests, and how well their appeals process worked; the effectiveness of agency policy in terms of communication, the review process, and level of disclosure of records; and, website design in terms of facilitating information flow, online services and availability of maintained reading rooms.

The National Archives and Records Administration was among those receiving an F – perhaps not surprising considering its relatively heavy FOIA burden. Also receiving F's: the EEOC, and the Departments of Labor, Veterans Affairs, Defense, Homeland Security, and State. Top performers were... Continue>>>

March 31, 2014 9:48 AM

Black columns run vertically down 700 pages, devoid of any information about the federal workers who spent thousands of hours doing union work while on the government payroll.

This is what the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

In the name of protecting employees’ privacy, USDA withheld their names, duty stations, job titles, pay grades and salaries. It even deleted names of the unions benefiting from the hours spent by these USDA workers who continued to draw full pay and benefits, courtesy of the taxpayers. Continue>>>

epa, FOIA
March 28, 2014 9:44 AM

Two weeks ago, the city of Ann Arbor took a deliberate step to remove a document that had been publicly available on its website for nearly half a decade. Why?

Allegedly, that document contains information that – if it were disclosed – would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of someone’s privacy. Never mind the fact that the context of the document itself makes clear that the information in question is clearly and deliberately intended to be publicly available.

To erase any possible doubt about that, I resorted to an advanced investigative technique: I asked the guy. And it turns out that current Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board member John Splitt had been content to have publicly disclosed as his email contact information in the document – the same as elsewhere on the Internet. Continue>>>

Attorneys, FOIA, Michigan
March 26, 2014 8:29 AM

Judicial Watch announced today that on March 18, 2014, it filed two new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to obtain government records about the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

One lawsuit seeks information about the December 19, 2013, decision by the Obama administration to establish new "hardship exemptions" that could allow most consumers to escape the Obamacare individual mandate without penalty (Judicial Watch v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (No.1:14-cv-00429)). The second suit seeks records about security and privacy concerns surrounding the Obamacare web portal (Judicial Watch v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (No. 1:14-cv-00430)).

The "hardship exemptions" suit was filed after a December 20, 2013, Judicial Watch FOIA request to HHS was ignored contrary to law. The lawsuit seeks the following information: Continue>>>

March 24, 2014 1:02 PM

The easiest and most common form of government communication is often the most expensive and difficult for the public to access.

Email has transformed government operations in ways that the state’s Freedom of Information Act never anticipated when it was last revised in 1999, said Maria J.K. Everett, executive director of the state’s FOIA Council.

While the vast majority of simple requests for information such as accident or spending reports are routinely made public for free to anyone who asks, public bodies in the Richmond area sometimes quote prices of hundreds or thousands of dollars to produce sets of emails. Continue>>>

email, FOIA
March 21, 2014 10:05 AM

As we recently covered, a judge had ordered the CIA to explain its ridiculous FOIA response tactics. The CIA had, with a straight face, first claimed it could ONLY produce hard copies of digital files from an internal security journal. Then, it said the only way it could create digital files was by printing out the files and re-scanning them. The judge noted in her order that Congress recognized government agencies would be reluctant to hand over documents to the public, which is why it directed agencies to make every reasonable effort to accommodate requests. This, of course, was not what the legislators had in mind when they crafted the Freedom of Information Act.

Now, it's the FBI being asked by a judge to explain its overuse of FOIA exemptions to withhold documents. This time, it's the (in)famous Ryan Shapiro suing our government for access to information. Shapiro is well-known by the FBI, which has attempted to shut down the prolific requester by simply refusing his FOIA requests. It justifies this violation of the FOIA by claiming (somewhat accurately) that Shapiro is utilizing a "mosaic" method to gain access to information the FBI clearly wants to keep hidden. The theory is that with enough overlapping requests, responses will turn up either different documents or inconsistent redactions, thus revealing potentially sensitive information.

Shapiro currently has six open FOIA-related lawsuits (five vs. the DOJ and one vs. the CIA). This one, originally filed in April of last year, centers on Occupy Houston-related FBI documents. Continue>>>

March 21, 2014 10:02 AM

Following in the footsteps of tech companies and wireless carriers, Comcast issued its first transparency report today, detailing for how many customer it handed data over to federal, state, and local law enforcement. Collectively, Comcast says that it complied with 24,698 law enforcement requests regarding criminal matters — largely subpoenas, with 93 fulfilled requests for pen registers or traces, and two fulfilled requests for wiretaps. Comcast also breaks down which instances involved handing over communication content — what was said or typed — and which only involved metadata: content was handed over for 253 warrants, while metadata was supplied for 1,080 of them.

Of greater interest is Comcast's receipt of secretive national security letters and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act information requests. Like others, Comcast is only permitted to disclose these figures in wide ranges and only on a six-month delay — as such, its first figures only represent the first six months of 2013. Comcast says that it received between 0 and 999 national security letters and 0 and 999 FISA orders. In both cases, between 0 and 999 customer accounts were affected as a result of the requests.

Comcast's national security requests are quite a bit lower than other service providers. Verizon said that it had received between 1,000 and 1,999 national security letters, and AT&T said it had received between 2,000 and 2,999. Though Verizon did not disclose its FISA requests, AT&T said that it received a staggering 35,000 and 35,999 requests — dramatically higher than the under 1,000 that Comcast received. That's likely a matter of AT&T's breadth as a wireless carrier: telephone metadata has been a focal point of FISA requests, and the major difference in figures suggests that traditional cable companies and ISPs may be less of interest. Continue>>>

Comcast, FOIA, open records
March 16, 2014 1:22 AM

It was a chilling crime and, even with a quick arrest, disturbing questions lingered.

Derrick Thompson called 911 in the coastal Maine city of Biddeford to report that he was being threatened. Police checked out the complaint, decided it was a civil matter and left the scene. Three minutes later, the teenager and his girlfriend were shot dead.

In a state averaging 25 murders a year, the case was clearly of public interest and the police officers were doing the public's business. But answering questions about their handling of the call took a lawsuit, an appeal and 11 months after state prosecutors turned down the Portland Press Herald's request for 911 transcripts. Continue>>>

March 13, 2014 4:55 AM

While former NSA-er Edward Snowden has demonstrated his own particular method to fostering greater government transparency, there are alternate ways that won't require you to seek asylum in a foreign country. One officially sanctioned avenue is by filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
FOIA was a 1966 federal law that grants the public and the press access to previously unreleased government information and documents (several states have since enacted their own state-specific Freedom of Information acts).
Annoyingly, given the rapid development of information technology since the 1960s, the process for attaining once-secret documents is not as simplified as it should be. As it stands now, FOIA requests can take several weeks or months to process and each federal department has their own individual (and occasionally labyrinthine) FOIA process. So, there's currently unique and separate processes to find information from agencies like the NSA, the CIA, and the Air Force. Continue>>>

March 12, 2014 4:55 AM

The Chicago Police Department can no longer keep misconduct records secret, a state appeals court has ruled.

The Illinois Freedom of Information Act doesn’t exempt “CR files,” which consist of misconduct complaints against officers and documents created during the investigations, the court found Monday.

The appeals court also found that “RL” files are open to the public. Those files identify police officers who have accumulated the most misconduct complaints. At issue were two RL files that named officers with the most complaints between 2001-2006 and 2002-2008.

University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman hailed the ruling, saying: “I really do think this is a watershed moment in Illinois in terms of police transparency and accountability.” Continue>>>

March 11, 2014 3:44 AM

When Florida media groups are concerned about freedom of the press and open government, they turn to the First Amendment Foundation for help.

Pete Weitzel, former senior editor of the Miami Herald, founded the non-profit 30 years ago.

The foundation is funded through contributions. It provides training, legal aid, and the annual Government in the Sunshine Manual as a guide to Florida’s open meetings and public-records laws.

This is a busy time of year for foundation president Barbara Petersen. With the legislative session underway in Tallahassee, she’s lobbying lawmakers for more government transparency and fewer public records exemptions. Continue>>>

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