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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October 6, 2014 10:55 AM

A review of the Internal Revenue Service's compliance with the Freedom of Information Act found the agency intentionally withheld or failed to "adequately search" for requested information in hundreds of cases.

In others, the IRS released more than it was authorized, dispensing "sensitive taxpayer information," including individuals' bank records. The number of FOIA requests that had piled up in the agency's backlog jumped 84 percent at the end of fiscal year 2013, the Treasury Department Inspector General for Tax Administration found in a report made public Wednesday. As of June 2014, the agency's backlog of FOIA requests had grown by an additional 16 percent.

TIGTA attributed the spike in backlogged information requests to the "influx of exempt organization requests starting in June 2013." It was learned in May 2013 that the IRS had targeted and harassed hundreds of Tea Party and conservative nonprofit applicants during the 2010 and 2012 campaigns, sparking a national scandal that culminated in congressional and criminal investigations. Continue>>>
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FOIA requests, IRS, taxes
October 3, 2014 11:16 AM

Complying with the 1966 Freedom of Information Act these days is a hugely complex technological feat that goes far beyond filing cabinets, good judgment and black markers.

One trick to organizing and handling mind-boggling numbers of documents is keeping in mind the requesters' needs, according to experts looking to make this government service more effective.

Last year, federal agencies received a total of 704,394 FOIA requests, with more than 230,000 going to the Department of Homeland Security alone. Continue>>>
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August 18, 2014 12:33 PM

What's your dragon attack plan?

Freedom of Information Acts are a powerful transparency tool between governments and constituents. But they can also yield to some pretty freaky inquiries–as we found out Saturday when an organization of local governments representing more than 350 councils in England and Wales released a list of the most unusual requests they had received so far this year

Of that list, we present here–David Letterman style–the Top 10 Weirdest Petitions English Councils Have Had to Field in 2014, along with some snarky answer suggestions for the council-members:


1. “What plans are in place to protect the town from a dragon attack?” (Wigan Council)
Our answer: We haven’t gotten that far in A Song of Fire and Ice yet, sorry.


2. “Please list all the types of animals you have frozen since March 2012, including the type and quantity of each animal.” (Cambridge City Council)
Our answer: We can only account for the types of animals we have subjected to repeated screenings of Disney’s “Frozen.” The results may be disturbing. Continue>>>
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FOIA requests, humor, UK
June 27, 2014 7:04 AM

The campaign of state Rep. TOM CROSS for state treasurer thinks it is not fair that freedom of information requests to the House and Senate have been handled very differently.

The office of the House clerk released hundreds of pages of documents about the 21 years spent by Cross, a Republican from Oswego, in the Illinois House. Among those asking for the documents was ZACH KOUTSKY, campaign manager for state Sen. MIKE FRERICHS, D-Champaign, who is the Democratic candidate for treasurer.

But the Senate president's office, asked by a consultant to the Cross campaign for information about Frerichs' seven years in the Senate, so far has asked that the request be narrowed, but has not released the information. Much, but not all, of the information sought is similar. Continue>>>
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June 24, 2014 11:49 PM

In Gainesville, Fla., it doesn’t take a Freedom of Information request to find out what city officials are chattering about on email. One merely has to go online and read them.

That city recently began posting email correspondence about public business to and from the mayor and the city commissioners. There may be other localities doing it as well, but this is the first one that’s been brought to my attention.

I must give credit to another FOIA blogger, this one from a member of the Society of Professional Journalists who calls the blog “FOI FYI.” The emails can be accessed by date, specific mailboxes, or by specific words in either the subject line or body of the email. You can even export them into a file for further use. Continue>>>
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October 8, 2013 7:43 AM

From MuckRock: A veritable FOIA frenzy ensued in 2013 following a series of leaks about NSA surveillance programs, recently released documents show.

From June 6 to September 4, the National Security Agency’s FOIA load increased 1,054 percent over its 2012 intake. In that three-month span, the agency received 3,382 public records requests. For comparison, the NSA received just 293 requests over the same period in 2012.

The statistics come from an internal agency email released to MuckRock last week. We requested the NSA’s FOIA logs for this year, as well as any internal communications regarding the agency’s FOIA receipts in 2013. We're still waiting for the most recent FOIA log... probably because the NSA FOIA office is buried under requests.

The emails show the FOIA flood unleashed when whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked information about Internet and telephone surveillance programs. The number of requests sent to the agency appears to be unprecedented.

The NSA statistics indicate that the agency received 1,809 public records requests in 2012. That amount was nearly doubled just this summer. According to the email, the heaviest flow of requests hit the agency in the early summer shortly after publication of the first media stories about the NSA’s spying on American citizens.

Visit MuckRock for more.

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September 10, 2013 8:48 AM

From Mitchell Daily Republic: HURON -- An agreement that remained secret for more than two years and sent thousands of dollars to an ex-superintendent was unsealed and read aloud Monday evening at a Huron Board of Education meeting .

The board voted during the meeting at the Huron Arena's Instructional Planning Center to unseal the five-page agreement, pursuant to a recent court order won by The Daily Republic. The agreement reveals that the board and then-superintendent Ross Opsal agreed in March 2011 to part ways before the expiration of his contract. The board agreed to pay Opsal his base salary plus extra amounts for retirement and health care each month for a period extending up to June 2012.

According to the terms of the agreement, the total amount of payments to Opsal could have been nearly $175,000 (the amount actually paid was not immediately available Monday night). Meanwhile, the district had hired and was paying a new superintendent.

The agreement did not explain why Opsal's employment ended, which is what The Daily Republic sought to know. The two current members of the Huron Board of Education who were members when the agreement was reached declined to say anything further Monday night about Opsal's departure from the district.

[...]

The Daily Republic, acting on a tip from a reader who saw payment amounts to Opsal listed in newspaper legal announcements after his departure, sought a copy of the agreement for a news story published in 2012. The district denied the request, and the denial sparked a fight over the document that finally ended Monday.

Visit Mitchell Daily Republic for more.

Also see: Mitchell Daily Republic wins case against Huron (S.D.) schools for more background.

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September 6, 2013 2:31 PM

From OpenTheGovernment.org: Be on the lookout for the upcoming release of the latest version of our Secrecy Report. As regular readers may know, this report includes multi-year tracking and analysis of indicators of openness and secrecy in the federal government. Among the indicators included in the report are: national intelligence spending, responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, classification and declassification, and more.

This year's report will also include an explanation of how some of the revelations made as a result of documents leaked by Edward Snowden throw serious doubt on the validity and meaningfulness of the numbers the government releases about the size and scope of surveillance programs. It will also include what we now understand to be the possible breadth and scope of the National Security Agency's communications surveillance programs as a result of these leaks.

Additionally, this year's report will include a special section outlining specific steps the Administration should take to kick-start a real move towards openness. Similar to results from our prior years’ Secrecy Report (PDF), this year's will show that, while there has been some reduction in secrecy in the federal government, the change is slow. The steps included in our special section are targeted at creating rapid change that would translate into a more open, efficient, and accountable government.

Visit OpenTheGovernment.org for more.

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September 5, 2013 12:36 PM

From Mitchell Daily Republic:  HURON — A copy of a secret agreement that directed nearly $175,000 to an ex-superintendent of the Huron School District must be provided to The Daily Republic, a judge ruled Wednesday.

[. . .]

In a four-page decision, Third Circuit Judge Jon Erickson said the district must release a copy of the settlement agreement between it and ex-superintendent Ross Opsal.

The agreement had the district making monthly payments to Opsal after his resignation in March 2011, according to public payment information already obtained by The Daily Republic. The reason for the payments, which is presumably spelled out in the agreement, has never been made public.

[. . .]

Erickson’s ruling affirms an earlier decision in favor of the newspaper issued in March by the state Office of Hearing Examiners. The school district, despite the two rulings against it, could still choose to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

[. . .]

The South Dakota Newspaper Association assisted the newspaper with the cost of the lawsuit. Dave Bordewyk, the association’s general manager, praised the judge’s decision. “It’s a good thing,” Bordewyk said. “It’s a good decision for open government in South Dakota.”

Continue >>

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September 5, 2013 12:04 PM

From Idea Lab:  New technology tools, combined with raised expectations among voters and stakeholders for government transparency, have sparked a movement toward “open government.” Championed by advocacy organizations and a few high-profile elected officials, the trend seeks to promote greater accountability and responsiveness for the systems of representative democracy. An area of particular opportunity — as well as potential concern — is the growing cache of large datasets of public information now available on the Internet.

Government entities from cities to nations are making data not only public but accessible. Earlier, such data was often buried in City Hall filing cabinets, provided only after Freedom of Information Act requests, or published electronically but in cumbersome formats. Machine-readable formats allow new applications, analysis and visualizations to be developed by anyone with basic skills and an Internet connection. Datasets from many corners of government are coming online: public health and demographic information, business licenses and property ownership, campaign contributions and expenditures, crime reports, school test scores, and much more.

Continue >>

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September 3, 2013 12:03 PM

From Courthouse News Service:  Though makers of the film "Zero Dark Thirty" were given access to the officers who helped take out Osama bin Laden, a government watchdog cannot get the same treatment, a federal judge ruled.

A few months after a team of Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011, Judicial Watch learned that the Defense Department and CIA had been communicating with director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal.

[. . .]

Judicial Watch demanded to see the records of the communication between the government and the filmmakers under the Freedom of Information Act in 2011.

Though the government answered that request, it redacted portions of the documents to protect the identities of the Navy Seals and CIA officers.

Judicial Watch then filed suit, arguing that the meeting put the officers' identities into the public domain.

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras disagreed . . .

Continue ...

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August 28, 2013 10:54 AM

From Mercer Island Reporter:  Those looking for a more transparent government are increasingly relying on public records to make it happen.

They hope the more documents they obtain, the clearer their view of what’s really going on behind closed doors in school districts, city halls and county buildings.

But there are those throughout the public sector convinced some of these Washingtonians are abusing the Public Records Act.

An alliance of government forces — whose members often are the targets of the records — tried unsuccessfully earlier this year to rewrite the act to make it easier to repel requesters whose motives they question.

Continue . . .

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