FOI Advocate News Blog

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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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April 11, 2014 10:41 AM

In July last year, the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission ruled to keep secret a contract detailing the new relationship forged by the University of Connecticut and Webster Bank. The case highlights questions that journalists must grapple with in the age of rising higher-education costs and the virtual arms race among universities to outspend one another in their efforts to attract the nation’s best and brightest. As this pressure increases, universities have sought new ways to line their coffers, inevitably driving their searches increasingly to private entities. For public universities, this new trend is creating a friction between the state residents who seek transparency for their tax dollars, and the university administrators who are under mounting pressure to compete with private universities while keeping tuition low.

The University of Connecticut dotted i’s and crossed t’s with a company called IMG College in 2008. A 33-page contract outlines their deal: IMG pays UConn more than $8 million a year to handle its sports marketing and promotion and up to $15 million in royalties. Part of that marketing relationship involves signing private companies to put their logo on UConn athletic signage and posters. This provides revenue to the university while in theory generating new customers for the business. Before 2012, the university’s key sponsorship deal was with People’s Bank. Its logo was on every poster, pamphlet, schedule card and doorway to Gampel Pavillion. The Connecticut-based bank has a net income of more nearly $200 million and employs about 5,000 people — and opened up branches on UConn’s campus, including one inside the university’s Co-op.

In 2012, that all changed. IMG leveraged its new control of UConn sponsorship rights to sign on Webster Bank as the new headline money backer of UConn athletics. In a matter of days, People’s Bank signage was stripped from sports fields, banners, and signs and replaced with Webster Bank logos. People’s Bank ATMs were removed from around campus and replaced with blue and gold Webster machines. The bank publicly announced its new status as “The Official Bank of UConn,” and the school sent out a press release boasting: Continue>>>
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April 11, 2014 10:40 AM

Every year, state governments spend tens of billions of dollars through contracts for goods and services, subsidies to encourage economic development, and other expenditures. Accountability and public scrutiny are necessary to ensure that the public can trust that state funds are well spent.

In recent years, state governments across the country have created transparency websites that provide checkbook-level information on government spending – meaning that users can view the payments made to individual companies as well as details about the purchased goods, services or other public benefits. These websites allow residents and watchdog groups to ensure that taxpayers get their money’s worth.

Last year was the first time that all 50 states operated websites to make information on state spending accessible to the public. These web portals continue to improve. For instance, in 2014, 38 states’ transparency websites also provide checkbook-level detail on subsidies for economic development. Many states are also disclosing information that was previously “off budget” and are making it easy for outside researchers to download and analyze large data sets about government spending. Continue>>>
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April 11, 2014 10:37 AM

The state Supreme Court has ruled that government agencies can charge an hourly fee for locating public documents requested under the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The court ruled 4-1 in a decision released Thursday.

The justices overturned a Kanawha County circuit judge’s ruling that said the city of Nitro didn’t have the authority to enact an ordinance to establish an hourly search fee for documents. The circuit judge had concluded the city could only charge for the cost of copying the documents, but the Supreme Court disagreed.

The justices said the Legislature has previously approved rules that allow various state agencies to charge search fees in FOIA document requests. Continue>>>
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April 11, 2014 10:25 AM

Back in 2011, the Electronic Privacy Information Center sued to enforce a FOIA for documents on FBI’s investigation of WikiLeaks supporters. In response, the government cited an ongoing investigation exemption. But they also cited a statutory exemption, claiming some law prevented them from releasing the records on investigations into WikiLeaks supporters. Unusually, DOJ refused to name the law in question. For that reason, and because my suspicions of how Section 215 gets used suggested it would make a spectacular tool for investigating a group of WikiLeaks supporters, I suggested that the statute was likely Section 215.

Since then, we’ve seen indications of NSA involvement in the investigation into WikiLeaks, though without any details from before EPIC’s FOIA.

And until March 11, that’s where things stood, with the government claiming it couldn’t release records about its investigation into completely innocent supporters of a publishing outlet and the judge (who had been newly assigned to the case in April 2013) doing nothing with the government’s motion for summary judgement. Continue>>>
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April 11, 2014 10:22 AM

Montana is one of the most improved states in transparency and online access to government spending information, a study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund showed.

The report, released this week, gave Montana a transparency score of 86 or a B. Montana’s score was 57 or a D in 2013. Montana was ranked as one of the top 10 most improved states in government transparency by the group.

The study said Montana improved its website to provide centrally accessible information on the millions of dollars in tax expenditures such as deductions and tax exemptions and exclusions given to individuals and corporations. Likewise, the state website now lists economic development subsidies, which empowers Montanans to monitor the awards given to companies to grow the economy. Continue>>>
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April 11, 2014 10:21 AM

West Virginia got an unfair grade on a national survey of transparency in government spending websites in the 50 states, state auditor Glen Gainer said Thursday. A report released this week by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group gave the state’s transparencywv.org website a grade of C for transparency, giving the site high marks for easy-to-access information on state contracts and spending, but deducting points for a lack of data on economic development subsidies.

The state received only 8 of a possible 27 points for transparency in economic development subsidies, including tax credits, grants and other incentives to attract business investment and had another 4 possible points deducted for failing to disclose expenditures that, by law, cannot be posted on the website.

However, Gainer said much of the economic development data the U.S. PIRG report said is missing from the state website was added to the site earlier this year. “We tried to tell them, ‘here it is,’ but we didn’t get any credit for it,” Gainer said Thursday. “There’s some fallacies in the way they came up with the score for us,” he added. Continue>>>
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West Virginia
April 11, 2014 10:20 AM

Wisconsin received an A- when it comes to government spending transparency, according to “Following the Money 2014: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” the fifth annual report of its kind by the WISPIRG Foundation.

The state of Wisconsin has made great progress in becoming more transparent about where public money goes, providing citizens with the information they need to hold elected officials and recipients of public subsidies accountable.

Officials from Wisconsin and 45 other states provided the researchers with feedback on their initial evaluation of state transparency websites. Based on an inventory of the content and ease-of-use of states' transparency websites, the “Following the Money 2014” report assigns each state a grade of A to F. The leading states with the most comprehensive transparency websites are Indiana, Florida, Oregon, Texas, Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, and Wisconsin. Continue>>>
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April 11, 2014 10:04 AM

The United States Senate approved an amended version of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (S. 994) today by unanimous consent. Advocates expect the landmark open data legislation, known as the DATA Act, to earn swift approval in the U.S. House of Representatives, where an earlier iteration of the bill passed by a 388-1 vote in November 2013. The DATA Act would mandate the publication of all federal spending disclosures as standardized open data. In many cases, that information is currently locked behind inaccessible document-based formats.

"The DATA Act takes a structured data model that has delivered unprecedented accountability in stimulus expenditures and applies it across all domains of federal spending," said Hudson Hollister, who drafted the initial version of the DATA Act in 2009 and now champions the bill as the Executive Director of the Data Transparency Coalition. "We're excited to welcome this bipartisan and now, bicameral endorsement for delivering reliable, accessible data about how taxpayers' dollars are being spent. The DATA Act will turn federal spending information into open spending data a valuable new public resource that strengthens democratic accountability and spurs innovation."

The Senate's final version of the DATA Act places the White House Office of Management and Budget alongside the U.S. Treasury Department in joint control of the development of government-wide data standards, a change opposed by the Data Transparency Coalition. However, the final bill retains the Coalition's key goals: strong and comprehensive mandates to standardize and publish the executive branch's whole portfolio of spending information. The final bill also invites the Treasury Department to set up an accountability platform modeled on the innovations of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the DATA Act, because it provides a legislative mandate for many elements of his May 2013 Open Data Policy. Continue>>>
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Federal Government
April 11, 2014 10:03 AM

NASA writes a lot of software, and that software performs a wide variety of functions. The nation's space agency also makes much of that software available to other federal agencies, organizations, businesses, and the public through approximately 1,500 software usage agreements. Now NASA wants to make better use of its intellectual asset portfolio and is releasing a software catalogue with more than 1,000 applications that are available for free to the public.

Software makes up about a third of reported NASA inventions each year, and by publishing a software catalogue the agency hopes to increase the ability of others to make use of its software significantly, said Daniel Lockney, who manages NASA's Technology Transfer Program. The TTP, which oversees the agency's intellectual property and the transfer of technology for commercialization and public use, is part of the agency's Office of the Chief Technologist.

"Traditionally our [apps] were distributed at different offices and labs around the country. So we needed to gather everything in one place," said Lockney in an interview with InformationWeek Government. "We're more excited about the potential of this catalogue because of how valuable it can be. It's our best solutions to the problems we've encountered." Continue>>>
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Best Practices, NASA
April 11, 2014 10:02 AM

Despite designating pregnant undocumented immigrants as “low-priority” targets for incarceration, officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) imprisoned 40 pregnant women at a detention facility in Texas while claiming not to keep “specific records” on detainees’ pregnancy status, Fusion reported on Tuesday.

Records obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request showed the women were held at the El Paso Processing Center last year, following a January 2014 report that 13 pregnant women were being detained at the facility during a four-month period, despite ICE officially stating that they should not be placed in detention centers “absent extraordinary circumstances.”

When Fusion filed a FOIA request looking for data on how many pregnant women were being detained in the agency’s 250 centers around the country, ICE responded with a statement saying it did not “maintain specific records” regarding that kind of information. Continue>>>
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customs, ice, immigration
April 11, 2014 10:00 AM

The Lakeland Ledger has received the prestigious Brechner Center for Freedom of Information award for its successful battles to keep public records and government accessible.

This is a coveted national award, it recognizes excellence in reporting about freedom of information, access to government-held information or the First Amendment and it's a significant effort on behalf of all Floridians.

The Ledger submitted five stories, including ones on the Polk County School Board requiring people to present identification before entering meetings; the Lakeland Fire Department making people who want public records fill out a form to get them; and the city of Winter Haven failing to keep written minutes of its meetings. All three organizations changed their practices after The Ledger wrote stories as part of its weekly investigative Eye on Polk series. Continue>>>
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April 8, 2014 12:49 PM

Sen. Fred Dyson’s bill would make it so all criminal cases that result in a dismissal or an acquittal are considered confidential. They won’t appear on the Internet, and you won’t be able to access them at the courthouse unless you are a state worker who deals with child welfare.

The Eagle River Republican presented it on the Senate floor as a justice issue. “This one is about Amendments Four and Five: privacy and due process,” said Dyson, referencing the United States Constitution.

The rationale behind the bill is simple: If a jury does not find a person guilty of a crime, then that person should not be punished by the court of public opinion.

According to data from the Department of Law, about a third of misdemeanor charges and a fifth of felonies never go trial. Dyson said over time, that adds up to a lot of people with publicly available criminal records who never saw the inside of a courtroom but might be judged negatively when applying for a job or an apartment. Continue>>>
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