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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November 14, 2014 11:44 AM

Dennis Brager, founder of the Brager Tax Law Group, received 6,500 document pages from the Internal Revenue Service as a result of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request he filed on behalf of the TaxProblemAttorney Blog.com which is published by the Brager Tax Law Group. The information requested included material used in training IRS personnel in the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP), determining Program penalties and instructing IRS employees on the Program. The OVDP is for those individuals who have failed to file an FBAR (Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts Report) form with the IRS, or failed to report income from offshore activities. The OVDP provides for a 27.5 percent penalty, but there are other options applicable to certain taxpayers which may provide additional relief.

"The OVDP is a complicated program with myriad, and sometimes conflicting, rules," Brager points out. "The interpretation of those rules is left in the hands of individual revenue agents whose decisions are reviewed not by the courts, but mysterious 'technical advisors' whose identities the IRS keeps secret, and with whom tax attorneys and their clients are not permitted to communicate directly." Brager continues, "We are hoping that these materials will help shed some light on how decisions are being made."

Brager initiated the FOIA request in April and received the files six months later. They arrived on a password protected CD with no particular organizational structure. The entire trove of thousands of pages is posted on the Brager website at http://bit.ly/10T42yy. Continue>>>

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November 13, 2014 2:53 PM

 Another win for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the American public in general. A federal judge has ruled the public has the right to know certain details about the FBI's facial recognition database.

    U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said the bureau's Next Generation Identification program represents a "significant public interest" due to concerns regarding its potential impact on privacy rights and should be subject to rigorous transparency oversight.

    "There can be little dispute that the general public has a genuine, tangible interest in a system designed to store and manipulate significant quantities of its own biometric data, particularly given the great numbers of people from whom such data will be gathered."
Continue>>>
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November 13, 2014 2:50 PM

Thanks to whistleblowers like Chelsea Elizabeth Manning and Edward Snowden, we are learning to ask what our government knows like informed citizens in a democratic republic should. Manning and Snowden sacrificed their freedom to increase government transparency.

You can uncover a lot of information without the possible risks of whistleblowing using the freedom of information act — FOIA. The FOIA allows people to formally ask the government questions and receive documents that answer those questions.

Staying well informed is a great way to protect your freedom. Continue>>>
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November 13, 2014 2:45 PM

I currently have a FOIA request in to the Department of Homeland Security, and the fee waiver request was initially denied because DHS told me that I was considered a "commercial requester" since I was using Muckrock's platform to make the request. We're currently appealing this designation (and DHS seems to be ignoring our appeal, as it's been months...), but in another such situation, DHS has once again, declared Muckrock a "commercial requester" in order to demand fees -- on the basis of the fact that people might actually read the documents, and that somehow advances Muckrock's "commercial" interests.

Now, some background is important here. The whole point of waiving fees for "commercial" requesters is to avoid companies doing things like building up private databases by use of FOIA requests and then selling them. It's not for the purpose of blocking commercial media properties from doing journalism with the documents. In fact, Homeland Security's own FOIA guidelines make it clear that for-profit media operations using FOIA for reporting purposes are not commercial requesters:

    A request for records supporting the news-dissemination function of the requester shall not be considered to be for a commercial use.

Seems simple enough, but apparently the DHS wants to ignore its own guidelines when it comes to Muckrock. Here's what DHS told Muckrock: Continue>>>
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November 13, 2014 2:42 PM

Open government is about enabling citizens to participate in the decisions that affect their lives, and making government more transparent, responsive and accountable. The Open Government Partnership has emerged as a leading platform in realizing that ambition, with civil society being the principal partner in realizing it. Governments that join OGP have to meet minimum requirements around openness and are monitored closely. What if – in the spirit of partnership – civil society was asked to meet some minimum level of openness? What would it look like?

In order to be eligible to participate in the Open Government Partnership (OGP), governments must demonstrate a minimum level of commitment to open government principles in four key areas: Fiscal Transparency, Access to Information, Income and Asset Disclosures and Citizen Engagement. A country is eligible to join the OGP if its government meets these criteria measured by objective governance indicators using public data sources.

In addition, the OGP encourages governments to do other things: follow guidelines on openness and transparency, ensure timely delivery of action plans and hold meaningful consultation with civil society. OGP encourages governments to define commitments that are relevant to open government, house OGP at an appropriate ministry and use OGP as a domestic accountability mechanism. Continue>>>
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November 13, 2014 2:37 PM

Prompted by a legal challenge into whether its dinner meetings were truly open to the public, the University of Washington Board of Regents will no longer regularly be holding them at the off-campus home of UW President Michael Young, as has been its practice for many years.

Instead, the 10-member board will meet at the University of Washington Club, a nonprofit campus social club.

Observers still won’t get dinner, but they will have an easier time finding the meeting, and likely a more comfortable place to watch, too. Last month, observers of the dinner had to stand on a porch that adjoined the dining room, behind a velvet rope, watching the regents eat and talk. No chairs were provided. Continue>>>

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November 13, 2014 2:29 PM

The Virginian-Pilot has filed a lawsuit against the FBI seeking information about a training exercise last year off the coast of Virginia Beach that claimed the lives of two agents.

The newspaper submitted a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act shortly after the May 17, 2013, deaths of Special Agents Christopher Lorek and Stephen Shaw. The paper sought "any reports or memos regarding the training accident," which involved the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team.

In a letter 13 months later, the bureau responded with a blanket denial. Continue>>>

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November 12, 2014 1:22 PM

What is arguably the most powerful of the U.S. government's surveillance authorities is also the most secretive, and it operates with the least amount of oversight.

Today, we're releasing a new set of documents concerning Executive Order 12333 that we -- alongside the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School -- obtained in an ongoing Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. EO 12333 hasn't received much public attention to date, but the government's prior disclosures in our suit have shown that the executive order in fact governs most of the NSA's surveillance. In the NSA's own words, EO 12333 is "the primary source of the NSA's foreign intelligence-gathering authority."

Surveillance conducted under EO 12333 is implemented almost entirely by the executive branch, without review by Congress or the courts. EO 12333 lacks even the plainly inadequate legislative and judicial checks on the two more well-known surveillance authorities -- Section 215 of the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act. Continue>>>
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November 12, 2014 1:18 PM

First lady Cylvia Hayes used a private email account while she served as a policy adviser to Gov. John Kitzhaber, and that decision could make it more difficult for the public to learn about Hayes’ role in shaping state policy.

Media organizations and others have requested public records including Hayes’ email correspondence, since an Oct. 8 story in Willamette Week raised questions about Hayes’ pursuit of consulting contracts that dealt with the same topics on which she advised Kitzhaber.

Hayes had an office in the capitol building for just over a year starting in 2011, and Willamette Week reported she attended senior staff meetings and has kept in touch with agency directors throughout the governor’s current term. Continue>>>

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November 12, 2014 1:07 PM

A plum job is opening up soon at the National Archives. The director of the Office of Government Information Services is charged with implementing dispute resolution in the Freedom of Information Act process and reviewing agency policy procedures and compliance with the open government law. The job ranges across the federal government, and comes with a small staff and a corner office on North Capitol Street that would have a commanding view of the Capitol Dome, were it not for the imposing and inconveniently situated headquarters of the Government Printing Office across the street.

Miriam Nisbet has led OGIS for all five years of its existence. She's retiring from federal service at the end of November, after working as an information policy attorney for the National Archive, with stints at the American Library Association and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Standing up the OGIS, which was mandated in a 2007 FOIA update, was a signal achievement. Continue>>> 

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November 12, 2014 1:00 PM

This may be about 60% stunt and 40% forceful nudge, but I'm still behind it 100%. For far too long, public officials have treated Freedom of Information laws as an annoyance... at best. In many cases, information designated as eligible for freedom has to be pried out of officials' hands using lawsuits, needlessly-protracted appeals processes or crowd-sourced tenacity.

Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley said he will issue an arrest affidavit today against Rodney Forte, the executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Alliance in Little Rock, for a violation of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

First off, you can be arrested for violating this act. In Arkansas, any violation of its FOIA law can result in this penalty.  Continue>>>

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November 12, 2014 12:51 PM

San Diego's top attorney continues his mission to discredit the authenticity of advocacy group San Diegans for Open Government. Last week, the city attorney's office issued a handful of subpoenas to several group members, ostensibly to poke holes in the nonprofit and thus gain an advantage in their lawsuit that challenges Business Improvement Districts.

In recent months, as the city and Cory Briggs — attorney for San Diegans for Open Government — grapple over high-profile cases, Goldsmith and his attorneys have seemingly looked to find proof that the nonprofit is not about justice but instead is a tool to line Briggs' pockets.

The city attorney has demanded to see contracts, membership dues, or anything else that shows the group is what it says it is. Most recently, Goldsmith and deputy city attorneys have tried to show that the group's members, if in fact they are members, are without legal standing because they do not own businesses. Continue>>>

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