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FEMA hurricane records can remain secret

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   FLORIDA   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Nov. 4, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   FLORIDA   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Nov. 4, 2005

FEMA hurricane records can remain secret

  • Records of disaster aid recipients requested under the FOI Act can remain shielded from the public, a federal judge ruled.

Nov. 4, 2005  ·   The government will not have to make public the names of people who received federal disaster relief money after Florida’s 2004 hurricane season despite allegations of spending improprieties, a federal judge ruled today.

Identities of aid recipients who received some of the $5.3 billion that was disbursed following the four hurricanes that pummeled Florida will not be released under a ruling by U.S. District Judge John E. Steele in Fort Myers. Concerned with the legitimacy of the spending, the media, Congress and the Department of Homeland Security investigated the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s spending and operations following the storms, and three Florida newspapers sued for information.

“Judge Steele recognized the legitimate public interest in FEMA in general, and the waste and fraudulent conduct that occurred in particular. Because of that, we had hoped he would release all the documents,” said Jim Lake, the attorney for the newspapers. “Those records are an important part of the analysis of how FEMA allocated the funds.”

Although the order allows the government to keep some of the requested records secret, it does require FEMA to give up certain correspondence and contracting records by Dec. 5. “We’re pleased that major portions of [Former FEMA Director] Mike Brown’s correspondence and $150 million in FEMA contracts will be made public under this order,” Lake said.

The three Gannett Co. newspapers that sued — the News-Press in Fort Myers, the Pensacola News Journal and Florida Today — cited the public interest in who received the aid and why in their October 2004 request for the records under the Freedom of Information Act. Homeland Security released some FEMA records but withheld more detailed information, including the names and addresses of aid recipients and the locations of some disaster sites, citing the “privacy” interests of the recipients. The newspapers sued for the release of the remaining information in June, alleging that the agency violated the FOI Act both in its failure to make the records available and to respond under the law’s time limits.

In his 53-page opinion, Steele agreed with the government that Exemption 6 of the FOI Act — the personal privacy exemption — covered the names and addresses, citing consideration of “public embarrassment or stigma” for the victims who received government aid. “While there is no inherent embarrassment or stigma in being the victim of a natural disaster, the same cannot necessarily be said about being the recipient of individual government assistance,” he wrote, also noting that “release of a list of the names and addresses of over 600,000 disaster benefits claimants and 33,000 flood insurance claimants creates a reasonable danger of identity theft, not to mention actual theft.”

Lake said the newspapers have not decided whether they will appeal the decision.

“We’re hopeful that the order will encourage FEMA to be more forthcoming in the future,” Lake said. “It’s important that the court recognized the public interest in FEMA’s performance.”

(News-Press v. U.S. Dep’t of Homeland Security, Media counsel: Jim Lake, Holland & Knight, Tampa, Fla.)CZ

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