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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March 23, 2015 12:01 PM

A House-passed bill allowing South Carolina public agencies to take legal action against citizens who file “unduly burdensome” or “overly broad” open-records requests could be the first law of its kind in the country if enacted, several legal observers say.

“It’s a terrible, terrible idea,” said Adam Marshall, the Jack Nelson-Dow Jones Foundation Legal Fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., when contacted last week by The Nerve. “It gives too much discretion to the agency to employ these measures.”

Under a bill (H. 3191) sponsored by state Rep. Weston Newton, R-Beaufort and an attorney, a public body could seek a hearing before a newly created “Office of Freedom of Information Act Review,” which would be a division of the S.C. Administrative Law Court, to “seek relief from unduly burdensome, overly broad, or otherwise improper requests.” Continue>>>
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March 23, 2015 10:53 AM

On March 2, 2015, a D.C. district court denied a plaintiff’s motion for spoliation sanctions against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its conduct in connection with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Despite the result, the court expressed its displeasure with the agency.

From the very start of its opinion, the court expressed its dissatisfaction with EPA’s behavior in connection with Landmark Legal Foundation’s FOIA request. The court speculated that EPA’s conduct in response to the request was for one of two reasons. “Either EPA intentionally sought to evade Landmark’s lawful FOIA request so the agency could destroy responsive documents, or EPA demonstrated apathy and carelessness toward Landmark’s request.” The court believed that “[e]ither scenario reflects poorly upon EPA and surely serves to diminish the public’s trust in the agency.”

Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative public interest law firm, filed the FOIA request with EPA and later brought suit in order to obtain information as to whether the agency intentionally delayed proposing or finalizing any agency rules until after the 2012 presidential election. The court observed that EPA allegedly engaged in a variety of delay and spoliation tactics to destroy relevant information, including failing to produce emails from former Administrator Lisa Jackson’s personal email account that Landmark proved that she had used for official business. Continue>>>
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March 20, 2015 9:35 AM

Gawker Media continues to prod the U.S. Department of State to hand over email communications between Philippe Reines, a former press aide in the department, and reporters from 34 media outlets. On Friday, the news site filed a lawsuit in D.C. federal court under the Freedom of Information Act in the latest sign that the imbroglio over revelations that Hillary Clinton used a personal email address instead of a government one is not going away anytime soon.

Gawker first made a FOIA request on Reines' communications in 2011 but got nowhere.

Two years later, Gawker published a story on its website about a hacker claiming to have compromised the email account of Sidney Blumenthal, a Clinton aide. The article raised the issue that Clinton was receiving emails from Blumenthal at a private account and mused, "While it's not strictly a violation of the [Presidential Records Act] and FOIA for Clinton to conduct official business on a non-government account, the law requires that those emails be archived along with her @state.gov communications." Continue>>>
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March 17, 2015 1:07 PM

Newspapers were once the dominant force in dislodging documents and other records from reluctant federal government agencies, but a new crop of media players, advocacy groups and corporate interests now drive the release of information.

The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 was first envisioned as a tool for traditional media to seek documents, data and information they deemed important to the public's interest. It also was meant to allow ordinary Americans to seek information from the federal government about themselves.

Nearly a half-century later, news organizations continue to pepper federal agencies with written and electronic requests for records and other information under FOIA, a review of agency logs shows, though they are cash-strapped and less likely to press their claims in court. Meanwhile, over the past decade there's been a surge of requests from bloggers, advocacy groups, corporate lawyers, researchers and even foreign nationals tapping the promise of open records. Continue>>>
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March 16, 2015 11:51 AM

Federal agencies are still mostly failing to live up to the promise of the Freedom of Information Act, according to the annual report of watchdog group Center for Effective Government.

The report looked at how well agencies were setting and abiding by disclosure rules, hosting "user friendly" FOIA request web services, and processing requests according to established timelines. The Department of Agriculture was the top performer, earning an overall grade of 'B' in the report, while the State Department was at the bottom, getting an 'F' -- largely because of its failure to process FOIA requests.

The report also noted that some agencies maintain outdated FOIA regulations. Eight of the 15 rated agencies posted improvement in their online FOIA services, including the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Continue>>>
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March 13, 2015 11:44 AM

Nearly 50 years after passage of the Freedom of Information Act, federal agencies continue to struggle to release requested information to the public in a timely manner. That's according a new report from the Center for Effective Government.

"FOIA is a valuable tool for allowing the public access to information, but agencies have struggled to implement the law," CEG said, in the newly released Making the Grade: Access to Information Scorecard 2015. "This can make it challenging for citizens to actually use the power that FOIA provides them. FOIA requesters complain about long delays in receiving answers to their requests, inappropriate withholding of information, and unhelpful service by agencies. Despite ongoing efforts by the Obama administration and Congress to improve implementation of our key national disclosure law, consistent, sustained performance remains elusive."

For the second year in a row, CEG looked at the performance of the 15 agencies that accounted for 90 percent of the FOIA requests the government received over the last two years. CEG focused on those agencies' performance in three areas: Continue>>>
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March 13, 2015 11:35 AM

The Cornell Alliance for Science–a global initiative for science-based communications based at Cornell University–has launched a symbolic petition to support biotechnology research scientists in the face of recent attacks on their integrity. These attacks come from an organization called U.S. Right to Know, which recently submitted Freedom of Information requests demanding that public scientists turn over tens of thousands of emails linked to their research efforts involving biotech crops.

“We taxpayers deserve to know the details about when our taxpayer-paid employees front for private corporations and their slick PR firms,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of U.S. Right to Know. “This is especially true when they do work for unsavory entities such as Ketchum, which has been implicated in espionage against nonprofit organizations.”

The federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) website defines “a law that gives you the right to access information from the federal government. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.” FOIA is a crucial tool in maintaining an open and transparent government. Continue>>>
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March 5, 2015 5:15 PM

The village of Oakley has given an attorney 145 names of people identified as applying to be village police reservists.

The village in southern Saginaw County, with a population of 290, has fought a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for nearly two years to keep the names of its reservists and donors to the police department secret. Two additional FOIA lawsuits were filed in recent months.

Oakley sent a document containing 110 pages of applications for the Oakley Police Department's reserve officer/critical incident response team to Hemlock attorney Philip Ellison on Feb. 26 in response to citizens Shannon and Brandi Bitterman's Freedom of Information Act requests. It is not known if all of the applicants were approved as reserve officers. Continue>>>
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March 5, 2015 4:09 PM

Federal agencies served with a Freedom of Information Act request are refusing to release documents related to their purchase, use and disclosure of zero-day exploits, keeping the American public in the dark about a practice that leaves the Internet and its users less secure.

Zero-day exploits are special software programs that take advantage of security vulnerabilities in software that are unknown to the software’s manufacturer. These exploits are frequently used by intelligence agencies and the military as well as, we suspect, by federal law enforcement agencies. But they can be used by any hackers, whether they work for the U.S. government, a foreign government, a criminal group, or anyone else. Zero-day vulnerabilities and the tools that exploit them are extremely powerful, because there is very little that potential targets can do to protect themselves.

But the effectiveness of such exploits depends on their secrecy—if the companies that make the affected software are told about the flaws, they will issue software updates to fix them. Governments thus have a strong incentive to keep information about the exploits they have developed or purchased secret from both the public and the companies who create the software we all use. Continue>>>
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March 4, 2015 1:03 PM

A federal judge Monday blasted the Environmental Protection Agency for its “suspicious” handling of a 2012 Freedom of Information Act request by a conservative group for top officials’ e-mails, saying the agency left “far too much room” for the public to suspect official misconduct.

U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth said that while he would not impose sanctions because the Landmark Legal Foundation had not established that the EPA acted in bad faith, the agency either intentionally sought to evade the FOIA request in order to destroy documents or demonstrated extreme apathy and carelessness.

“Either scenario reflects poorly upon EPA and surely serves to diminish the public’s trust,” wrote Lamberth, former chief judge of the federal court of the District. In a 25-page opinion, Lamberth called the EPA’s recurring disregard of public information disclosure obligations “offensively unapologetic” but “more consistent with ineptitude.” Continue>>>
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March 2, 2015 1:17 AM

The village of Oakley has released 13 pages of names and financial information in response to a Saginaw News request for the names of donors to the Oakley Police Department.

However, at least some of those listed, including Saginaw County 911, deny donating to the department.

The village of Oakley sent the documents, which identify roughly 150 entities, in response to a Freedom of Information Act Request from The Saginaw News seeking the names, amounts and dates of donors to the police fund. Continue>>>
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February 27, 2015 12:24 PM

The National Security Agency has repeatedly stated that leaks by former contractor Edward Snowden about its surveillance programs have compromised national security and harmed American foreign policy – but Washington remains unwilling to say how.

When pressed on the issue, officials tend to offer little in the way of details, while attempts to force the government to disclose information have so far failed to turn up any significant information. Vice News recently filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request regarding the damage done by Snowden – as seen by the government through its own internal investigations – but even though 112 documents were released, nearly everything was redacted.

Outside of a few subheadings – some of which read “assessment,” and “compromised information,” as well as “recommendations” – virtually all text from the documents was redacted in order to "mitigate the harm caused to national security," reads a declaration signed by Aleysia Williams, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s FOIA department. Continue>>>
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