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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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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June 16, 2014 7:42 AM

As an attorney, you have a duty to do an adequate investigation before asserting any claim, but your investigation can’t intrude on others’ privacy rights. Getting public record information is one way to get what you need without a privacy problem. But what if the information isn’t available online or through a visit to a federal agency? Make a Freedom of Information Act request.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (5 USC §552) generally provides that any person has a right of access to federal agency records. Virtually every document generated by a federal agency is available to the public in one form or another unless specifically exempted from disclosure.

Getting information you need under the FOIA is a relatively straightforward process: Continue>>>
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FOIA request
May 27, 2014 9:38 AM

Lately I’ve been on something of a public records binge. I asked for records about my license plate reader data from local law enforcement agencies. I asked for complaint records from the Federal Trade Commission about a sketchy Bitcoin mining hardware maker. A few more requests are still pending.

And last summer, I asked United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency for my travel records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Recently, I got an answer back—sort of.

As someone who enters and exits the country with some decent regularity, I figured there had to be some records. Specifically here’s what I requested: Continue>>>
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March 1, 2014 1:11 AM

A public policy research and information group has filed a lawsuit against the federal government over claims that it has denied its Freedom of Information Act requests seeking information on incidents involving nuclear weapons, nuclear components or radioactive material.

The organization, called Speaking Truth to Power, filed a federal complaint in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia on Feb. 27 naming as defendants the U.S. Defense Department, U.S. Air Force Combat Command, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense and Joint Staff and U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration.

The suit seeks the release of records of events identified as “Bent Spear” or “Dull Sword,” which are incidents the plaintiff maintains are public under Defense Department’s directives. Continue>>>
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February 12, 2014 5:55 AM

WASHINGTON — Since last year’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s massive communications data dragnets, the spy agency has been inundated with requests from Americans and others wanting to know if it has files on them. All of them are being turned down.

The denials illustrate the bind in which the disclosures have trapped the Obama administration. While it has pledged to provide greater transparency about the NSA’s communications collections, the NSA says it cannot respond to individuals’ requests without tipping off terrorists and other targets.

As a result, Americans whose email and telephone data may have been improperly vacuumed up have no way of finding that out by filing open records requests with the agency. Six McClatchy reporters who filed requests seeking any information kept by the NSA on them all received the same response. Continue>>>
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November 7, 2013 2:22 PM

From Investigative Reporting Workshop: iFOIA, a free online system to create, send and track federal and state records requests, is now up and running. After nearly a year of project development, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) offered iFOIA to Bloomberg News and NPR for beta testing. Since its official release at the Online News Association Conference on Oct. 17, major newsrooms, including The Washington Post, have hosted representatives from the Reporters Committee for tutorials on how this resource can be used effectively by journalists. Emily Grannis from the Reporters Committee stopped by the Workshop today to give our staff an iFOIA briefing.

[...]

iFOIA acts as a cloud service in which journalists can store all of their records requests online, sorted by project. Federal agencies are required to respond to FOIA requests within 20 business days — at which point iFOIA automatically sends users a reminder that they should have received an answer. Furthermore, the system automatically fills in contact information for federal agencies and saves information for state agencies after those are added by the user. The users also have the option to share state agency contact information with the iFOIA community, while still keeping their requests private.

Visit Investigative Reporting Workshop for more.

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September 18, 2013 11:07 AM

From ars technica: The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) will not be faxing any orders to Five Guys or receiving journalists' Freedom Of Information Act requests anytime soon. According to a report from the FOIA request service MuckRock, the OSD's sole fax machine—the only effective electronic conduit for sending FOIA requests to the Pentagon—is down for the count and won't be replaced until October at the earliest. With the threat of a federal government shutdown looming, it may be longer than that.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) also accepts FOIA requests by snail mail, as well as through a web portal. But the web portal is problematic, to say the least—the site seems to be designed to discourage FOIA submissions and makes it impossible for automated requests to be sent. Just getting an account to log into the system can take a while. And even when the FOIA requests get into the hands of the OSD, there's no guarantee of a speedy reply—the OSD had a backlog last year of over 1,000 requests awaiting processing. (DOD as a whole had over 7,000 FOIA requests hung in the queue.)

Visit ars technica for more.

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July 16, 2013 9:43 AM

From MuckRock:   Jason Leopold has used the Freedom of Information Act to break a number of major stories, from the drugging of Department of Defense detainees to the Biblical justifications the Air Force used for nuclear war to a drawn-out battle with the FBI over Occupy Wall Street documents.

So Jason was a natural for kicking off the return of our Requester's Voice, and he very graciously shared how he got involved in using FOIA in the first place, and what his secret is in shaking documents loose from bureaucracies that seem built to avoid disclosure at all costs (Follow Jason on Twitter and his articles here).

MuckRock: You call yourself a "FOIA terrorist." What does that mean, and why is FOIA such a central part of what you do?

Jason Leopold: Actually, "FOIA terrorist" is the term that was used to describe me by a certain government agency that was apparently annoyed by the number of FOIA requests and appeals I had filed. I found out about it during a phone call with a FOIA analyst (who has since become an important open government source for me) who said he saw an email from his boss that said, "the FOIA terrorist strikes again. We just got two dozen new requests from him." I actually liked the term because it made me feel that I was doing my job and doing it well if it meant I was angering government officials.

See the rest of the interview here.

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July 5, 2013 8:34 AM

From Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:  Federal health officials broke federal laws by stonewalling legal attempts to learn how they created new rules requiring employers to pay for insurance that covers contraception, sterilization and abortion, according to lawyers representing the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

In a lawsuit filed Monday, lawyers for the diocese, including its Catholic Charities group and its Catholic Cemeteries Association, claim federal administrators of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention purposely created extraordinary and illegal barriers to their client obtaining public information about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

 

July 5, 2013 8:23 AM

From Jeff Larson at ProPublica:  Shortly after the Guardian and Washington Post published their Verizon and PRISM stories, I filed a freedom of information request with the NSA seeking any personal data the agency has about me. I didn't expect an answer, but yesterday I received a letter signed by Pamela Phillips, the Chief FOIA Officer at the agency (which really freaked out my wife when she picked up our mail).

The letter, a denial, includes what is known as a Glomar response -- neither a confirmation nor a denial that the agency has my metadata. It also warns that any response would help “our adversaries” ...

 

April 10, 2013 12:58 PM

From ACLU:

Everyone knows the IRS is our nation’s tax collector, but it is also a law enforcement organization tasked with investigating criminal violations of the tax laws. New documents released to the ACLU under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the IRS Criminal Tax Division has long taken the position that the IRS can read your emails without a warrant—a practice that one appeals court has said violates the Fourth Amendment (and we think most Americans would agree).

Last year, the ACLU sent a FOIA request to the IRS seeking records regarding whether it gets a warrant before reading people’s email, text messages and other private electronic communications. The IRS has now responded by sending us 247 pages of records describing the policies and practices of its criminal investigative arm when seeking the contents of emails and other electronic communications.

So does the IRS always get a warrant? Unfortunately, while the documents we have obtained do not answer this question point blank, they suggest otherwise. This question is too important for the IRS not to be completely forthright with the American public. The IRS should tell the public whether it always gets a warrant to access email and other private communications in the course of criminal investigations. And if the agency does not get a warrant, it should change its policy to always require one.

November 16, 2012 2:26 PM

A few state FOIA and local open government news items selected from many of interest that we might or might not have drawn attention to earlier in the week:

ACLU lawsuit claims they were denied access to public records

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey claims in a lawsuit that the city of Passaic and its custodian of records have illegally denied it access to public records concerning police devices that read motor vehicle license plates. ...[T]he ACLU and the ACLU of Massachusetts filed federal Freedom of Information Act requests with the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Transportation to learn how the federal government funds and uses the license plate-reading technology.

Visit NorthJersey.com for the rest.

Age of Access: Asheville's budding open-data push

Although local governments have a huge amount of useful information that’s theoretically “public,” actually getting ahold of it can prove challenging, time-consuming and expensive. The idea is to bypass formal data requests (and the resulting demands on staff time to compile them) by enabling anyone with a computer or a smartphone to find out instantly what’s available — and access it, for free, anytime.

Open Data Day coincided with the city’s releasing a provisional version of an online open-data catalog. Meanwhile, Code for America, a national nonprofit that’s been described as a Peace Corps for geeks, has established a volunteer “brigade” in Asheville to help advance the process, with further assistance possible down the road.

Visit Mountain Xpress for the rest.

Chairman of Del. water authority in public records dispute promises "information release" soon

CAMDEN, Del. — The chairman of a Delaware water and sewer authority says he expects an "information release" soon in a public records dispute. Mark Dyer, chairman of the Camden-Wyoming Sewer and Water Authority, said Thursday that information would come probably by the end of the month. He didn't specify what records would be provided. He also didn't say whether the authority would fully comply with a judge's order to follow Delaware's Freedom of Information Act and disclose information about employee salaries.

Visit The Republic for the rest.

Utah Transit Authority ordered to disclose crime data

The State Records Committee voted 3-2 on Thursday to stop what its chairwoman said is an attempt by the Utah Transit Authority to use high fees to block access to public data. It ordered UTA police to give free access to public data in its crime database to The Salt Lake Tribune.

Visit Salt Lake Tribune for the rest.

West Virginia chapter ACLU files a FOIA request with the city of Parkersburg

PARKERSBURG - The West Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the city of Parkersburg seeking records about citations to individuals or organizations for soliciting funds without a permit. The request stems from citations issued to panhandlers standing at intersections with handmade signs asking for help from passing motorists.

Visit Parkersburg News and Sentinel for the rest.

2012 Digital Cities Survey winners announced

n this year's Digital Cities Survey, which highlights local governments demonstrating IT best practices to better serve its constituents, four cities took top honors: Louisville, Ky.; Salt Lake City; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Marana, Ariz. The Digital Cities Survey, now in its 12th year, is conducted by the Center for Digital Government (CDG), a division of Government Technology's parent company, eRepublic Inc. The survey was underwritten by AT&T, McAfee, ShoreTel and Sprint.

Visit Government Technology for the rest.

State rules in Wellesley (Mass.) schools' favor in public records request

Wellesley — The Massachusetts Supervisor of Public Records has sided with the Wellesley Public Schools in a dispute over the costs of a records request made by the Wellesley Townsman.

Visit The Wellesley Townsman for the rest.

Oklahoma lawmakers hear from open-government advocates

OKLAHOMA CITY - Oklahoma appears to be one of only three states in which the Legislature has exempted itself from open records laws, a Senate panel was told Tuesday. The other two states are Massachusetts and Oregon, said Joey Senat, associate professor at the Oklahoma State University School of Media and Strategic Communications.

Visit Tulsa World for the rest.

UNC audit uncovers $123,500 missing from performing arts series office

CHAPEL HILL -- The box office and business operation of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carolina Performing Arts series could not account for $123,500 in revenue that disappeared between 2007 and 2011, according to an internal university audit. The yearlong audit revealed that during a four-year period, $121,000 in cash revenue and another $2,500 in checks were missing from the business operation that oversees the box office for performances at UNC-CH’s Memorial Hall and other arts events. The audit was released to The News & Observer following a public records request.

Visit Winston-Salem Journal for the rest.

Want a copy of your town's annual budget in New York? It's not as easy as it seems

Most of Broome County’s 16 towns this year failed to comply with a new state law that requires all municipalities to post their budget proposals online — if they have a website — before holding public hearings on them. And despite longstanding requirements under state law, two would not release paper copies of the budgets until after public hearings on them.

Visit pressconnects.com for the rest.

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