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 http://foiadvocate.blogspot.com/.
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December 18, 2014 12:58 PM

Anyone can use the federal Freedom of Information Act to request records about prisons owned and operated by the government. Information about prisoner demographics, violent incidents, and prison budgets are all obtainable. But privately run facilities—even those that hold federal prisoners—are exempt from the law. Last week, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) introduced legislation to change that. On December 10, she introduced a new bill, the Private Prison Information Act. If passed, it would force any nonfederal prison holding federal prisoners to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.

In 2013, 41,200 federal convicts—19 percent of the entire federal prison population—were housed in private facilities. That year, Corrections Corporation of America, the largest prison contractor in the United States, collected more than $584 million from the federal government.

Passing Lee's bill will be difficult, if not impossible. From 2005 to 2012, Democrats (including Lee) introduced five separate bills that aimed to apply FOIA to private prisons. All of them failed. With the GOP—which has been generally friendly to the prison industry—controlling both houses of Congress beginning next year, the new bill will likely meet a similar end. Continue>>>
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December 12, 2014 9:41 AM

In continuing coverage of a recently announced settlement between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and a nonprofit health system that left boxes of patient files on a former doctor’s driveway after a planned acquisition of the doctor’s practice fell apart, Atlantic Information Services, Inc.’s (AIS) Report on Patient Privacy conducted a review of hundreds of documents related to the case (Complaint Number 09-99157), obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. As detailed in RPP’s December issue, the documents provide an inside look into how the agency conducts investigations and the processes the agency uses to develop a resolution agreement.

For its part, RPP found, OCR was very thorough: not contacting Fort Wayne, Ind.-based Parkview Health System, Inc. until it had amassed a great deal of information, nearly two years after Dr. Christine Hamilton filed her complaint. Then-Acting Regional Manager for OCR Region V Celeste Davis made multiple requests for data from Parkview, including information on how the hospital handled previous acquisitions and specific details on each of the various steps regarding Dr. Hamilton’s files, including those who negotiated the “potential” purchase as well as who decided Parkview should not go through with it.

The most revealing documents RPP obtained were those that address how OCR decided which regulations were violated, what penalties to apply, and what a corrective action plan (CAP) would look like. According to RPP, the documents show changes over time, likely as a result of negotiations with Parkview. As the number of violations dropped, so did the settlement amounts and the length and breadth of the CAP. Although OCR ultimately signed an agreement with Parkview for $800,000 and a one-year CAP, OCR did appear to have successfully pressed for the highest level of penalty, willful neglect not corrected. Continue>>>
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December 12, 2014 9:33 AM

The State Department has failed to turn over government documents covering Hillary Rodham Clinton's tenure as secretary of state that The Associated Press and others requested under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act ahead of her presumptive presidential campaign. They include one request AP made four years ago and others pending for more than one year.

The agency already has missed deadlines it set for itself to turn over the material.

The State Department denied the AP's requests, and rejected the AP's subsequent appeals, to release the records sought quickly under a provision in the law reserved for journalists requesting federal records about especially newsworthy topics. Continue>>>
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December 11, 2014 3:49 PM

It's no secret that the US Trade Representative (USTR) has approached the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations with a disappointing lack of transparency. For years now, leaks have been an inadequate substitute to reasonable public policy, and non-corporate groups have resorted to reading between the lines of press statements even as the stated timeline of the agreement has blown by.

There's another tool that members of the public can use to pry information out of agencies like the USTR: the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Through FOIA, groups like EFF can demand certain kinds of information, and the agency has a legal obligation to provide it. To that end, we've filed a FOIA request for correspondence records between USTR negotiators and corporate lobbyists about the TPP. When we receive responsive documents—likely some time in the new year—we'll go through them and release what we've found.

This isn't the first time a public interest group has used FOIA request to uncover this sort of information. In fact, our request builds specifically on earlier requests from IP-Watch and Knowledge Ecology International, which helped the public understand the cozy relationship between lobbyists and negotiators up to that point, in 2013. Our new request seeks to expand on the information discovered through that request and bring it up to date. Continue>>>
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December 11, 2014 3:13 PM

Should we cheer or boo when outspoken professors at state universities become the target of public records demands filed by antagonists seeking their emails and correspondence? As we had occasion to note during the Douglas Laycock controversy in May and June, there’s plenty of inconsistency on this question on both left and right. Some who cheer FOIA requests when aimed at scholars supportive of the environmental and labor movements, for example, later deplore them as harassment when the tables are turned, and vice versa.

If there’s any group you might expect to take a consistent position on these questions, it’s the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), its members being prospective targets of such requests and thus at the very center of the issue. So what’s their opinion?

In 2011, when politically liberal University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon was the target of a FOIA request by state Republicans, AAUP sent a strongly worded letter on its letterhead denouncing the move as a threat to academic freedom. The group likewise came to the defense of environmentalists targeted by conservatives. Continue>>>
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December 4, 2014 11:05 AM

Government procurement is a $9.5 trillion industry, and supplying goods and services to the government is a core business function for thousands of companies around the world. In the U.S., contracts signed by both parties are usually not published, and are only released if someone files what is known as a freedom-of-information request with the relevant agency.

That’s inappropriate. Citizens paid for the services; they should know what they’re buying. But it is also a loss to the private sector. Keeping contracts hidden increases the cost and risk of bidding on government tenders, and so businesses should be leading the charge on contract transparency.

We know firms want access to government contracts because they are willing to pay for it. In the U.S., the company DelTek processes freedom-of-information requests for government contracts as part of an effort to help its clients win more government work. It boasts a contracts database of more than 1.7 million entries. There are similar pay-access databases for oil, gas and mining contracts. If firms know what previous contracts look like, it will help them bid for new work or licenses—or avoid bidding if they can’t compete. Continue>>>
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December 1, 2014 2:07 PM

What was said to whom and when about St. Elizabeth’s Hospital’s plans for a replacement hospital in O’Fallon have led to Freedom of Information Act requests by the city of Belleville and the hospital. And now the attorney general is investigating those requests and the responses provided.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan has called for further inquiry into responses to the FOIA requests Belleville made to O’Fallon, and the requests St. Elizabeth’s made to Belleville

While an attorney representing Belleville said he trusts the “standard process” as Belleville awaits more information requested from O’Fallon, a Hospital Sisters Health System attorney said she expects transparency from Belleville as it awaits documents from the city. Continue>>>
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November 21, 2014 5:19 PM

Although the Homeland Security Department pledged three years ago to steadily reduce backlogged Freedom of Information Act requests, the number has risen even higher, congressional investigators said.

DHS made some progress by the end of fiscal 2012 to reduce the backlog, but the numbers have risen to more than 50,000 in fiscal 2013, an increase of more than 9,000 since 2011, according to the Government Accountability Office report (pdf) released Nov. 19.

Overall, the department and its component agencies reported processing more than 200,000 FOIA requests in 2013, more than any other federal agency. It also had the most backlogged requests, more than half the total 95,000 backlogged requests across the federal government. Continue>>>

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November 21, 2014 11:22 AM

The ACLU is filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request today for information about a newly revealed Marshals Service program that uses aircraft to suck up location data from tens of thousands of people’s cell phones at a time.

The U.S. Marshals Service program, exposed last week by the Wall Street Journal, involves Cessna planes equipped with “cell site simulators” flying from at least five airports around the country. Cell site simulators, also called IMSI catchers, impersonate a wireless service provider’s cell tower, prompting cell phones and other wireless devices to communicate with them instead of the nearest tower. In doing do so, the simulators can learn all sorts of information that facilitates accurate location tracking, including the electronic serial numbers and other information about the phone and the direction and strength of the phone’s signal.

The government apparently calls cell site simulators deployed on airplanes “DRT boxes” or “dirtboxes”, after their manufacturer, Digital Receiver Technology, Inc. (DRT). (Other cell site simulator models, produced by Harris Corporation, are the “Stingray," “Triggerfish,” “Kingfish,” and “Hailstorm”). Continue>>>
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November 18, 2014 11:10 AM

Today marks the seven-month anniversary of my oldest outstanding public records request, so please indulge me in some ventilation. Back on April 14, before the snow of last winter melted, I made a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Today, snow once more whitens the ground, and I'm still waiting.

I have asked for the following: Records relating to the "troubled" designation granted to the Housing and Redevelopment Authority of the City of Mound, as well as the most recent list of troubled housing authorities nationwide. I had noticed Mound's name as the only Minnesota public housing authority on this list, so I thought this request would be a simple matter.

Silly me. Continue>>>

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November 3, 2014 1:35 PM

When High Country News began using the Freedom of Information Act to gather official reports of threats against federal employees in the West, we didn't expect that the main obstacle would arise in one federal agency's headquarters.

Our intention was positive: By examining and summarizing the incidents, we hoped to ease tensions and encourage more respect for the federal employees as they go about their duties in the field.

So we were surprised by the poor performance of the Bureau of Land Management's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) office in Washington, D.C. Its response to our request for public records can only be described as dysfunctional. Continue>>>
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September 8, 2014 8:13 AM

Late last month, I found myself pleading with a U.S. Army FOIA specialist. How can you have no records for my request? My FOIA request for records of debarred contractor was three months old at this point, and my call to the FOIA Public Liaison (if that's really what he was) had succeeded in prompting some movement by the Army. But this wasn't what I was expecting.

On Aug. 25, I got a letter pronouncing the final word on my May 20 request. No records exist. How could that be possible, I wondered.

Two days later, before I had a chance to start hyperventilating again, I got an email from another branch of the U.S. Army Legal Services Agency. This time, it came with a 50-page PDF, with most names redacted, of course, but featuring enough information to piece together why this individual ended up on the federal government's list of individuals and companies barred from federal contracts. Continue>>>
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