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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October 7, 2014 2:10 PM

Thomas Duncan, a 42-year-old Liberian citizen, is in serious condition with Ebola in a Dallas hospital. His partner Louise is confined to the Dallas apartment where Duncan became very sick from the virus. Texas health officials have placed her, one of her children, and two nephews in their 20s, under quarantine. This means they have been ordered, under threat of prosecution, by the county not to leave their home or have any contact with outsiders for 21 days. Any exception requires the approval of the local or Texas state health department.

Have government officials done what they need to do to prepare us for the reality of quarantine in a time of Ebola? No. But if there is a deadly communicable disease, they can lock us up for weeks at a time. Personal freedom and liberty are foundational American values. But in the face of a threat of death, liberty can and should be, as we are watching in Dallas, limited so that you can't move around freely and infect others.

The federal government derives its authority for isolation and quarantine from the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Under the Public Health Service Act, the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the CDC are authorized to take measures to prevent the entry and spread of deadly communicable diseases from foreign countries into the United States and between states. Ebola surely meets that description. So quarantine at an airport or the harbor is legal, and we should be ready to see it used. Continue>>>
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October 7, 2014 2:08 PM

The open government track at the 2014 Texas Tribune Festival featured panel discussions on what legislators should disclose, open records, state budget transparency and "dark money" vs. donor privacy. Listen to audio from each session:

Tribune News Editor Corrie MacLaggan moderated the "How Much Should Legislators Disclose?" session, which got the Open Government track kicked off. Panelists included state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, Texas Ethics Commission Chairman Jim Clancy, Texas Ethics Commissioner Wilhelmina Delco, state Rep. Jeff Leach and former state Rep. Steve Wolens.

2014 TribuneFest: Audio From the Open Government Track
by Ayan Mittra Oct. 4, 2014 1Comment
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The open government track at the 2014 Texas Tribune Festival featured panel discussions on what legislators should disclose, open records, state budget transparency and "dark money" vs. donor privacy. Listen to audio from each session.

Tribune News Editor Corrie MacLaggan moderated the "How Much Should Legislators Disclose?" session, which got the Open Government track kicked off. Panelists included state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, Texas Ethics Commission Chairman Jim Clancy, Texas Ethics Commissioner Wilhelmina Delco, state Rep. Jeff Leach and former state Rep. Steve Wolens.

The track's second session, "Putting the 'Open' in Open Records," was moderated by Tribune News Apps Developer Becca Aaronson. On the panel were the Bryan-College Station Eagle Editor Kelly Brown, Democratic Attorney General Nominee Sam Houston, lawyer Joe Larsen, Texas General Land Office Open Records Commissioner Hadassah Schloss and University of Texas System Vice Chancellor and General Counsel Dan Sharphorn. Continue>>>
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October 7, 2014 2:07 PM

Mary Burke was succinct. She used a single word ó"Yes" ó to answer four of six questions from the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council about open government.

The Democratic candidate for governor responded affirmatively when asked if she would... Burke, a Madison School Board member making her first run for statewide office, also said in her written responses that the Legislature should be subject to the state's open meetings law, though she continues to believe party caucuses should be able to meet in secret. Why?

Gov. Scott Walker, her Republican opponent, was less direct. In his written responses, Walker sidestepped the question about releasing calendars in advance, saying he makes his calendars available monthly upon request "as required by state law." He has continued predecessor Jim Doyle's approach of pre-announcing only select events, often with less than 24 hours' notice. Continue>>>
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October 7, 2014 2:05 PM

Sitting in a modestly furnished conference room in the Wallace Building, with a bay window view of the State Capitol behind him, Bill Monroe reflects on the workload he expected in the first year with the state's Public Information Board.

The board was created by the state to handle complaints and violations related to open meetings and open records laws, and Monroe served as its chairman from its inception in 2012, including the first year when it had no funding.

Monroe, a former publisher of the Spencer Daily News who fought for the board's creation, assured legislators the board would handle roughly 350 cases per year. Monroe based that figure on information he gathered from other state entities that previously handled open meetings and open records issues, but it was merely an educated guess. He remembers hoping that first year would not break his promise. Continue>>>
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October 6, 2014 10:55 AM

Problems with harassment, sexual assault, fraud and other issues within the Alaska National Guard are serious business. The scathing report from the National Guard Bureau, the removal of Adjutant Gen. Thomas Katkus and Deputy Commissioner McHugh Pierre and additional promised shakeups in Guard leadership illustrate the gravity of the issues facing one of the state's prominent institutions. So itís difficult to understand Gov. Parnellís reticence in making public documents that would enhance the publicís understanding of what took place to warrant these actions and help ensure such missteps aren't made in the future.

In May, the Alaska Public Radio Network made a Freedom of Information Act request for emails between the governor's office, Gen. Katkus and Mr. Pierre related to the reports of problems in the Guard. The guidelines for FOIA requests state that agencies have 10 days to respond, with an additional 10 if more time is required to fulfill them. With the APRN request, the governor's office took 86 days before notifying the network it was rejecting their petition for information entirely.

Itís not as though the request slipped through the cracks. During the course of those three months, APRN said it made more than two dozen phone calls to the governor's office seeking a response, many of which were unreturned. When APRN finally received the rejection on Sept. 26, the governor's policy director Randy Ruaro said the communications, some of which came from Guard chaplains blowing the whistle on chain-of-command abuses, fell under the privilege between clergy members and their parishioners. Furthermore, Mr. Ruaro cited potential harm if victims' identities became known. Continue>>>
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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 6, 2014 10:52 AM

A rare opportunity to affirm the spirit and intent of Michigan's Freedom of Information Act may be slipping away. House Bill 4001 would improve citizen access to public records by capping document copying costs, reducing fees when government agencies miss disclosure deadlines and increase financial penalties on agencies that improperly deny release of their documents. Those are simple, common-sense steps that don't impose any major burdens or restrictions on government agencies; rather, they reinforce the intent of Michigan's Freedom of Information Act to make the public's business public. That's how members of the state House saw it ó they approved HB 4001 by a whopping margin of 102-8 in March.

Alas, the bill has failed to advance in the Senate, languishing without action in the Senate Government Operations Committee. The bill's only hope for passage may lie in the post-election lame duck season, where it easily could be lost in the crush of last-minute action.

That would be a shame. HB 4001 would be a definite benefit for journalists investigating government operations; almost every journalist has experienced a case in which government employees try to deter their work by engaging in delaying tactics or charging disproportionate fees for accessing public records. Continue>>>
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October 6, 2014 10:51 AM

Whether Iowa's public records law should be amended to make public the reasons that government employees are fired sparked debate in a roundtable discussion Thursday at The Des Moines Register.

Advocates like Gov. Terry Branstad say citizens have a right to learn of a government worker's wrongdoing as a matter of public safety. Opponents like Sen. Matt McCoy worry changing the law would violate a person's privacy, unfairly jeopardize a fired worker's chances of future employment and potentially open the state to ongoing rounds of litigation.

Those two divergent views were on display at Thursday's roundtable, "Opening Doors, Opening Minds," an event sponsored by The Register and the Iowa Newspaper Association in light of recent public record and meeting controversies in which Iowans were denied access to government information. Continue>>>
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October 6, 2014 10:50 AM

Secrecy is the enemy of good government. Fortunately, here in Colorado, we have developed a strong tradition of transparency and open government so that citizens can see how their tax dollars are being used.

In the early 1970s, over the objections of many in government, we passed laws to make government records open for public review and required meetings to be open for all to see under the Open Meetings Law, which is part of the Colorado Sunshine Law.

We also passed bills in recent years that provide greater transparency and accountability in state government by highlighting state spending and making that information available for public praise or scrutiny. Continue>>>
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October 6, 2014 10:49 AM

Hang around the nation's capital long enough and inevitably even the most grizzled newsroom veteran reads something so utterly wrong that he is left speechless.

Such a moment arrived for this ink-stained wretch Thursday while reading a Washington Post op-ed by Bipartisan Policy Center President Jason Grumet. His piece included this declaration about post-Watergate reforms designed to bring government out from behind closed doors:

"But while openness is indeed key to a functioning democracy, there is a dark side to sunlight. Deliberation, collaboration and compromise rarely flourish in front of TV cameras or when monitored by special interests.

Most government staff now operate under the principle of 'don't write that down' and avoid raising concerns and challenging questions altogether for fear that they will be publicly revealed to embarrassing effect. Continue>>>
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October 3, 2014 11:22 AM

In a case involving a Freedom of Information Act request for information related to government policies and procedures for law enforcement use of cell phone tracking, a federal judge has ordered the release of records, which the Justice Department sought to keep secret by claiming they would 'alert law violators'- otherwise known as criminals- to how to evade detection.

The ACLU in Northern California and San Francisco Bay Guardian filed a lawsuit seeking documents on location tracking technology on July 31, 2012. The Justice Department has produced a few documents but has continued to insist that many of the documents requested are 'work product' so they are protected from disclosure. The agency has also refused to search for documents that were requested.

Relevant portions in something called USABook, a 'legal resource book and reference guide for federal prosecutors,' were identified, but the Justice Department claimed they could keep the sections secret because they contain details on 'investigatory techniques.' Continue>>>
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October 3, 2014 11:19 AM

After two painful losses before the South Carolina Supreme Court, there has been a small victory for the Freedom of Information Act in a case involving Greenville businessman and open-government activist Edward 'Ned' Sloan. The man who has sued a number of state and local agencies, often successfully, has been paid $18,000 in fees and costs related to a 2012 FOIA request that was handled improperly by the state Department of Revenue.

The victory does not create earth-shattering changes regarding open government but it does affirm part of the FOIA and protects the spirit of this important law. The effect of the court's ruling was negligible because it comes well after DOR produced documents that were being sought by Sloan, and as the court noted the 'request for injunctive relief was mooted by DOR's production' of the records.

Nevertheless, the state Supreme Court's opinion is welcome news. As Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, told Greenville News reporter Tim Smith, the ruling should be good news for the public. Some state agencies spend months producing records sought through a FOIA request, and the law tightly defines the process that an agency must follow. Continue>>>
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