In the last few weeks, attorneys for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press have secured four major victories for journalists and news organizations seeking access to public records and hearings. Read about the work, and the stories that have come from them, below.
Access to government data shouldn’t cost $174,000
On March 30, a federal district court ruled that the Department of Commerce could not charge Quartz reporter David Yanofsky $174,000 for access to government databases of information about who is entering the U.S. — information like age, residency, port of entry, visa type, and initial destination. The Department sells access to the data to companies in tourism and other travel-related industries. Reporters Committee attorneys are representing Yanofsky in the case.
“Simply put, the government can’t hold public information for ransom,” said Reporters Committee Litigation Director Katie Townsend. “Demanding $174,000 for access to government databases is clearly unreasonable, and we’re glad that we were able to help David in this case.”
Helping reporters tell the story of natural gas leaks
On March 21, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) opened a hearing to the press and public about leaks at a Louisiana-based natural gas facility, after Reporters Committee attorneys threatened legal action on behalf of E&E News. PHMSA — which previously refused reporters’ requests for notice and an opportunity to attend — blocked reporters from a hearing. The energy company that owns the facility requested the hearing, after PHMSA issued an order requiring it to take action to address leaking tanks.
“We were thrilled that E&E News was able to cover a PHMSA hearing for the first time, particularly since these hearings concern matters of extraordinary importance to the public” said Staff Attorney Sarah Matthews, adding “because E&E News was able to attend the hearing, it could report more quickly and accurately on what this government agency is doing to address these natural gas leaks.”
Shining a light on DOJ’s process for overseeing corporate compliance with deferred prosecution agreements
On March 29, a federal district court held that the U.S. Department of Justice can’t withhold the names of individuals — often former federal prosecutors — nominated for lucrative monitorships of corporations’ compliance with deferred prosecution agreements under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). In the case, Just Anti-Corruption reporter Dylan Tokar — represented by Reporters Committee attorneys — sought the information in order to shine light on the secretive nomination process.
In 2008, DOJ launched an internal inquiry and revised its selection guidelines after Chris Christie, in his role as a U.S. Attorney, approved a contract reportedly worth between $28 million and $52 million for his former boss (and former U.S. Attorney General) John Ashcroft to serve as the compliance monitor for a corporation.
“The public has a right to know how the Justice Department chooses corporate monitors, and releasing these records will allow the public to gauge whether DOJ’s guidelines are being applied correctly,” said Stanton Litigation Fellow Jennifer Nelson. “The public needs access to this information to know that the process for selecting monitors is free of conflicts of interest.”
Was law enforcement prepared for Charlottesville rally that turned violent?
Reporters Committee attorneys scored a victory for two freelance journalists, Jackson Landers and Natalie Jacobsen, who sought the operational and safety plans used for the “Unite the Right” rally on Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.
The records released to Landers in a settlement with the City of Charlottesville showed that law enforcement “didn’t follow written orders to intervene in outbreaks of violence and were focused on securing an area for rally speakers who never delivered speeches.”
And at the end of March, a Virginia trial court ruled that the Commonwealth would have to turn over a redacted version of the Virginia State Police’s plan for the rally to Jacobsen. The court rejected the Commonwealth’s argument that Virginia FOIA allows it to withhold the plan in full, ruling that the law requires that the plan be redacted and released to the public.
“The Charlottesville community, and the public in general, deserve to know what plans are in place to protect them when protests turn violent,” said Staff Attorney Caitlin Vogus. “Without this information, we can’t hold our officials accountable and improve public safety.”