Freedom of Information

New report ranks state government spending transparency

Emily Grannis | Freedom of Information | News | April 9, 2014
April 9, 2014

A report released Tuesday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund awarded eight states a grade of A for comprehensive websites detailing public spending, while three states received Fs.

Indiana ranked the highest of all the states, earning 94 of 100 possible points. Oregon, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont and Wisconsin all earned 90 or more points.

The three lowest ranking states were Idaho, Alaska and California, with California pulling in the lowest score: 34 out of 100.

Maine bans texting, instant messaging to conduct state business

Michael Rooney | Freedom of Information | News | March 31, 2014
March 31, 2014

In Maine, the administration of Gov. Paul LePage has enacted a ban on state employees’ use of text messaging, instant messaging and the use of personal email accounts to conduct state business.

The directive is an effort to better comply with the Maine Freedom of Access Act, which requires all communications related to state business to be stored as state records and open to public inspection, unless the record falls into a particular exemption category.

Journalism group criticizes EPA's lack of openness

Emily Grannis | Freedom of Information | News | March 19, 2014
March 19, 2014

The Society of Environmental Journalists has released a statement criticizing the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to respond to public records requests, including still-lingering questions about a Jan. 9 chemical spill.

"As we celebrate 'Sunshine Week,' it’s worth noting that nowadays EPA in many cases simply fails to answer questions posed by journalists on behalf of the public – even some that are routine and non-controversial," wrote Beth Parke and Joseph Davis. Parke is SEJ's executive director and Davis is the director of SEJ's Watchdog Project.

"When the agency does respond, a favorite tactic is to wait until just before or even after a reporter’s deadline and then mail a short written statement that does not answer the questions," they wrote.

Commonly requested records

Autopsy & coroners’ reports: The Federal Bureau of Investigation may have autopsy photographs or reports as the result of an investigation. If another government agency has conducted the investigation, it would have control of the autopsy records. Courts have held the photographs do not have to be released under FOIA Exemption 6. Epps v. Dep’t of Justice, 801 F.Supp. 787 (D.D.C. 1992); Accuracy in Media v. National Park Service, 194 F.3d 120 (D.C. Cir. 1999).

Federal Open Meetings Laws

Six years after passing the Freedom of Information Act, Congress enacted the Federal Advisory Committee Act to open up to public oversight the advisory process of executive branch agencies. Since 1972, FACA has legally defined how advisory committees operate and has a special emphasis on open meetings. In 1976 Congress followed with the Government in the Sunshine Act, which requires that certain government agency meetings be open to the public. Modeled after FOIA, the Sunshine Act was intended to promote a transparent government and increase agency accountability.

Spills and chills

Journalists struggle to get complete, accurate information on the West Virginia chemical spill
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Emily Grannis

AP Photo/Steve Helber

Leaks in storage tanks containing MCHM, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, led to a ban on use of tap water for parts of West Virginia.

On the morning of Jan. 9, about 10,000 gallons of chemicals leaked from a storage tank into a river in Charleston, W.Va., contaminating water supplies for more than 300,000 people. More than a month later, journalists are still struggling to get information about the spill and resulting public health risk.

House passes FOIA reform bill

Emily Grannis | Freedom of Information | News | February 26, 2014
February 26, 2014

The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday unanimously passed the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act, paving the way for more streamlined Freedom of Information Act request processing and a stronger role for the independent agency charged with reviewing government compliance.

H. B. 1211 creates a presumption of openness, allowing a document to be withheld only if an agency “reasonably foresees that disclosure would cause specific identifiable harm to an interest protected by an exemption, or if disclosure is prohibited by law.” Current FOIA law simply instructs agencies to release non-exempt information, rather than starting from the presumption that all information should be released and only then applying narrow exemptions.

Police misconduct files should be public, Hawaii judge says

Emily Grannis | Freedom of Information | News | February 11, 2014
February 11, 2014

A judge in Hawaii has ordered the Honolulu Police Department to release officer disciplinary records under the state's public records act.

Civil Beat, a nonprofit news website, requested 12 officers' disciplinary records after publishing an investigative series on secrecy surrounding police misconduct.

Hawaii's police union intervened in the case to argue officers had a privacy interest in protecting their records from disclosure. Hawaii's public records law has an exemption for police disciplinary records when the misconduct does not result in the officer being fired.

Federal court rules food stamp retailer data should be public

Emily Grannis | Freedom of Information | News | January 30, 2014
January 30, 2014

A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that a newspaper in South Dakota should be able to get certain data about how much money various retailers get from the federal food stamp program.

The Argus Leader of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, initially requested documents from the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Freedom of Information Act in 2011. The paper hoped to learn more about the businesses that receive taxpayer funds through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

"Knowing how much each business makes from SNAP can be a flag for identifying fraud. It also gives taxpayers an idea of which types of businesses profit more than others," the Argus Leader explained in an article in August 2011.

White House releases national action plan for open government

Emily Grannis | Freedom of Information | News | December 6, 2013
December 6, 2013

The White House today released the second Open Government National Action Plan, laying out 23 commitments to increase government transparency.

The administration launched the first National Action Plan in 2011. Today's plan reports that so far the government has met 24 of the 26 commitments in that plan.

"Building upon these efforts to create a more efficient, effective and accountable government, the adminsitration is issuing the second Open Government National Action Plan," today's report explained. "The new plan includes a wide range of actions the administration will take over the next two years, including commitments that build upon past successes as well as several new initiatives."