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.
The Department of Agriculture denied the newspaper's request, citing Exemption 3 of FOIA, which keeps secret certain documents that specific laws exempt from FOIA. In this case, there is a statute that allows the government to keep private certain information, such as names and personal information of SNAP recipients and confidential information from participating vendors. The lower court in South Dakota held that the Department of Agriculture could withhold the documents the Argus Leader requested under that statute.
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals (8th Cir.) overruled that decision yesterday, finding that because retail vendors do not actually submit the spending information to the government in order to qualify to participate in SNAP, it is not the type of information the statute meant to protect. Instead, the government independently collects data on how much money is spent at each retailer through third party billing statements.
"The statute makes clear that only information obtained under Sec. 2018(c) — submitted by the retailer — is exempted," the court wrote. "Here, however else the spending information could be obtained, the department actually obtained it from third-party payment processors, not the retailers themselves."
The court went further to recognize that "Congress has clearly indicated its intent to involve the public in counteracting fraud perpetrated by retailers participating in the program."
Argus Leader executive editor Maricarrol Kueter said in a story yesterday that the paper is "greatly encouraged" by the court's ruling.
The government must decide whether to comply with the decision or appeal.