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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December 16, 2014 1:05 PM

Advocates for greater openness in government were frustrated Friday after Congress failed to update the Freedom of Information Act despite bipartisan support in the House and Senate.

Without a new law, government agencies are likely to continue stonewalling requests for records and other information, said Amy Bennett, assistant director of OpenTheGovernment.org, an advocacy group.

"The only thing that changes an agency's behavior is an act of Congress," she said. Continue>>>
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December 16, 2014 12:57 PM

Congress is quite adept at protecting its self-interest while ignoring the public’s interest, but this week offered a glimmer of hope that lawmakers still care about good governance and accountability. On Monday, the Senate unanimously passed the Freedom of Information Act Improvement Act, a bill critical to changing the federal government’s culture of resistance to openness.

The House must move quickly to pass the legislation before lawmakers head home for the holidays.

The process of obtaining federal records is difficult and lengthy as it is. Agencies are notorious for stonewalling FOIA requests, sometimes taking years to respond before denying them on legally flimsy grounds. The Obama administration, which promised to be the most transparent in history, has been especially awful at providing public records. In fact, an Associated Press study determined the Obama administration is the least transparent in recent history — and getting worse by the year. “More often than ever,” the news organization reported, “the administration censored government files or outright denied access to them” and “under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, cited more legal exceptions it said justified withholding materials and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy.” Continue>>>
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December 16, 2014 12:52 PM

Eighty people filled a meeting room at the Coeur d’Alene Inn last night to learn about Idaho’s open meeting and public records laws, from county commissioners to newspaper reporters, school trustees to city clerks, state lawmakers to interested citizens. “The open meeting law is your ticket to the show,” Deputy Idaho Attorney General Brian Kane told the crowd. “Anybody who has ever gone to a meeting and seen a vote without any discussion – that’s not a good sign.” Coeur d’Alene retiree Frank Orzell, with a big grin, responded from the audience with a double thumbs-up.

Kane said members of a board from eastern Idaho once bragged to him that they had the shortest meetings in the state. “To me, that’s a sign that there’s something wrong,” he said. “The open meeting law wants you to have those deliberations. Don’t take that away from the public, when they’ve got their ticket to the show.”

The public records law, meanwhile, is the public’s “fishing license,” Kane explained. People have a right to access information about their government, regardless of why they want it – even if they’re just fishing around for something. Holding up the light-blue Idaho Open Meeting Law Manual and the bright-red Idaho Public Records Law manual – every attendee received copies of both – Kane said, “If this is your ticket to the show, this is your government fishing license.” Continue>>>
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December 16, 2014 12:37 PM

The Obama administration has urged a court to reject a request to disclose thousands of pages of documents from a Justice Department investigation into the torture of detainees by the Central Intelligence Agency, including summaries of interviews with about 100 witnesses and documents explaining why in the end no charges were filed.

The administration made the filing late Tuesday in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by The New York Times, hours after the Senate Intelligence Committee made public a 524-page executive summary of its own investigation into C.I.A. torture. The committee based its report on a review of C.I.A. documents but did not conduct any interviews.

The Justice Department materials, the court filing revealed, include 10 reports and memorandums totaling 1,719 pages — more than three times the number of pages in the Senate report released Tuesday — as well as “numerous” pages of reports on interviews with current and former C.I.A. officials. Continue>>>
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December 16, 2014 12:33 PM

HB 3796 will help ease the burden on public bodies when responding to large Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and will allow requesters to be directed to websites for information already posted online.

Originally introduced in January of 2014, House Bill 3796 (Rep. Currie/Sen. Hastings) amends FOIA by establishing a definition of a "voluminous request" and allowing a public body to respond to a voluminous request in the same manner as when responding to a recurrent requester. The bill states that a public body is not required to copy and make available for public inspection a public record that is published on the public body's website, unless the requester does not have reasonable electronic access.

In June, the bill was vetoed by the Governor. However, the House overrode the veto with a vote of 76-36 on November 19, 2014 and the Senate followed suit on December 3, 2014 with a vote of 39-13. Continue>>>
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December 16, 2014 12:29 PM

One of the remaining dramas as the lame-duck Congressional session slouches to a close is whether House Speaker John Boehner will allow a vote on an important reform measure aimed at strengthening the Freedom of Information Act. That’s the law that allows journalists and the public to access federal government records.

A key provision of the legislation, the Freedom of Information Act Improvement Act, would codify the “presumption of openness” President Obama ordered in a 2009 directive. It would mandate that federal agencies may withhold information only when it foresees specific harm to, say, national security or policy deliberations between agencies.

The provision is necessary because future presidents could withdraw Mr. Obama’s directive, and agencies delay or even refuse to hand over records on flimsy grounds. Continue>>>
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December 12, 2014 9:45 AM

We're getting word (from here, among various other places) that the widely supported FOIA Improvement Act — which is staring down the clock of death in the House — has inspired a flood of last-second lobbying by anonymous banking interests. Wait, what?

The bipartisan FOIA reform bill that a coalition of civil society and Hill allies (including Sunlight) have been laboring over and negotiating for months – and which passed the Senate unanimously in the nick of time this week – is now suffering under the misperceptions of bankers that don't want open government to get anywhere near their interests.

Truth is, they are wrong. But even if they weren't, they were asleep at the wheel. This language has been in the bill, without controversy, for many months. The presumption of openness that they're worried about has been in this bill since June ("(8)(A)"). 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 12, 2014 9:22 AM

The House must act by the time it adjourns Thursday if the bill is to become law this year. We urge the House to pass it.

According to The Washington Post, "The measure would also limit a FOIA exemption that allows the government to withhold records that are subject to executive privilege or that are part of sensitive decision-making processes. It would requiring agencies to release the information after 25 years.''

Classified information is exempt. Continue>>>
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December 12, 2014 9:13 AM

Government transparency is a favorite — and necessary — topic of the fourth estate. The push and pull for a more open government is constant here in Vermont and across the nation.

On Monday, a victory in this battle was won as the Senate passed The FOIA Improvement Act of 2014, a bill aimed at easing disclosure of records under the Freedom of Information Act. The bill was introduced by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the Senate on Monday that passage of the FOIA Improvement Act, "will help open the government to the more than 300 million Americans it serves." Continue>>>
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December 12, 2014 9:09 AM

Of the 28 official Danville boards and commissions listed on the city’s website, about half of them hold meetings during work-day hours — while open to the public, most people with daytime jobs would find them difficult to attend.
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said while her organization does not have a “best practices” stance on what time government bodies should hold their meetings at the most convenient times possible for the largest number of people.

“In today’s working world, [working] 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. is not the norm, as it was 25 years ago,” Rhyne said, noting that many companies offer flex time and other schedule options to its employees. “But you do want to schedule meetings when most people could attend them.” Continue>>>
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