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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January 29, 2015 11:31 AM

The Drug Enforcement Administration has initiated a massive national license plate reader program with major civil liberties concerns but disclosed very few details, according to new DEA documents obtained by the ACLU through the Freedom of Information Act.

The DEA is currently operating a National License Plate Recognition initiative that connects DEA license plate readers with those of other law enforcement agencies around the country. A Washington Post headline proclaimed in February 2014 that the Department of Homeland Security had cancelled its “national license-plate tracking plan,” but all that was ended was one Immigrations and Customs Enforcement solicitation for proposals. In fact, a government-run national license plate tracking program already exists, housed within the DEA. (That’s in addition to the corporate license plate tracking database run by Vigilant Solutions, holding billions of records about our movements.)

Since its inception in 2008, the DEA has provided limited information to the public on the program’s goals, capabilities and policies. Information has trickled out over the years, in testimony here or there. But far too little is still known about this program. Continue>>>
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January 23, 2015 12:40 PM

The Environmental Protection Agency does not have documents a law firm sought in a FOIA request, nor is it obligated to obtain them, a federal judge ruled.

 Plaintiff Beveridge & Diamond helps "clients around the world resolve environmental, natural resource, project development and sustainability issues relating to their facilities, products and operations," according to the firm's website.

The law firm asked the EPA for data on the physical affects experienced by people exposed to a highly potent form of asbestos found at a vermiculite mine in Libby, Mont. Continue>>>
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January 23, 2015 12:10 PM

The Kalkaska County Board of Commissioners isn’t retracting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Kalkaska Commission on Aging, just clarifying where the request originated.

At the county board’s regular meeting Jan. 14, District No. 6 Commissioner Craig Crambell said he was upset to learn a FOIA request had been forwarded to the KCOA and was addressed on behalf of the entire board.

“The Kalkaska County board did not make such a request,” Crambell said. Continue>>>

January 22, 2015 1:10 PM

Following several Freedom of Information Act requests, the U.S. Air Force released its files related to unidentified flying objects this week.

The files reveal many UFO instances that the Air Force has investigated and explained–but also a number they have not, according to USA Today.

The truth is out there — now on the Web. The fabled Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s files on UFO sightings and investigations, have tantalized and frustrated extraterrestrial enthusiasts for decades. But this past week, nearly 130,000 pages of declassified UFO records—a trove that would make Agent Fox Mulder’s mouth water—were put online. Continue>>>
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January 22, 2015 12:58 PM

Newly inaugurated Illinois State Treasurer Michael Frerichs refused Tuesday to release a report about sexual harassment allegations against his predecessor, pointing to ongoing legal action.

Frerichs, a Democrat and former state senator who said during his campaign that he wanted to release the investigation into the charges against ex-Treasurer Dan Rutherford, denied a request from The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act filed Jan. 12, the day he took office.

In a letter to the AP, FOIA officer G. Allen Mayer said Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a Democrat, had "instructed" the treasurer not to disclose the findings because Madigan's office is defending Rutherford against a former employee's federal lawsuit. Continue>>>

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January 21, 2015 12:53 PM

A legal dispute involving a former Koch Industries employee has led a prominent academic freedom group to contradict its previous advocacy for the privacy of “scholarly communications.”

A student group at the University of Kansas, Students for a Sustainable Future, filed a state open records request last April for documents pertaining to the hiring of several faculty members within the university’s business school.

It also included a request for the email correspondence of lecturer Art Hall, who served as chief economist for the lobbying sector of Kansas-based Koch Industries from 1997 to 2004. Continue>>>
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January 21, 2015 12:30 PM

Northern Michigan University’s student newspaper won’t have to pay a fee to get administration e-mails through the Freedom of Information Act.

North Wind editor-in-chief Emma Finkbeiner said the emails were sought to investigate what she calls intimidation issues from six administrators and general counsel over other stories, including NMU’s exclusive contract with Starbucks Coffee.

University officials said the FOIA request would cost the newspaper $613. That decreased to $300 when general counsel e-mails were taken off the list. Continue>>>
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January 5, 2015 6:57 AM

The Des Moines Register received a call last week from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Freedom of Information Act Office, which processes requests for public documents.

The call was a sobering reminder of the pace at which the federal government handles requests for information:

"This is Brandon Lancey from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the FOIA Office. I am calling to see if you are still interested in — well, actually you made a request a while back about Lincare Holdings Inc., regarding their annual reports." Continue>>>
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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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