Patience a virtue in pursuing the document-driven story

Rod Spaw, Bloomington Herald-Times

INDIANAPOLIS — Cost and delay are major obstacles journalists face in making records requests, but the rewards that come with tracking down a record-driven story can make it worth the pain.

That was the message brought to the 2006 Freedom of Information summit in Indianapolis by two journalists who have made extensive use of public records at the state and national level.

Sally Kestin, an investigative reporter at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, detailed how her newspaper followed a breadcrumb trail of records to reveal how the federal government had doled out millions of dollars in aid to Floridians after a series of hurricanes in 2004 — even to people who lived in areas unscathed by the storms.

Frank Bass is a multimedia investigative reporter for the Associated Press in Washington, D.C. Among the document-driven stories he has helped produce was an AP investigation of federal SBA loans following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The AP found that assistance intended for businesses directly affected by 9/11went to enterprises that had no connection with those events, such as a pet salon in Salt Lake City, a gun dealer in Guam and a manufacturer of funeral markers in Tennessee. In many instances, Bass said, business owners were not even aware that loans they had received from the SBA came from funds designated for 9/11 victims.

Both Bass and Kestin made clear that filing an FOI request is merely the start of what can be a long and frustrating process.

“What I’ve seen is a shrinking access to records,” said Kestin, who noted that exorbitant cost estimates to fulfill a public records request is a common delaying tactic of reluctant government officials and agencies.

Kestin said her newspaper once was given an estimate of $1,200 to produce e-mails of Florida governor Jeb Bush related to the hurricanes. She advised journalists to ask for detailed cost breakdowns and to negotiate the cost of complying with requests. She and Bush also recommended alternatives to copying to hold down expenses — such as asking for an electronic form or examining records in person.

Bass said the AP settled for a statistical sampling of SBA loan applications when it became clear that it would take “about eight years” to get every individual application made after 9/11.

And once the records are in hand, that is just the start of the reporting process, according to the two investigative journalists. Kestin said that once her newspaper got the FEMA records, it raised questions about the companies the federal agency was using to do damage inspections in Florida. That led to an examination of what it took to become a damage inspector, and that revealed many inspectors had criminal records, including such offenses as fraud and embezzlement.

Bass concurred that patience is a virtue for those pursuing the record-driven story. For example, he said the AP’s recent disclosure that the National Archives had “re-classified” thousands of formerly public documents in a secret deal with the CIA was a result of FOI requests to multiple agencies that began about three years ago.