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Florida newspapers pursue access to records of disaster-aid payouts From the Winter 2006 issue of The News Media & The…

Florida newspapers pursue access to records of disaster-aid payouts

From the Winter 2006 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 24.

By Corinna Zarek

The government does not have to release the identities of people who received some of the $5.3 billion in aid following the four hurricanes that pummeled Florida in 2004 &#151 Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne &#151 U.S. District Judge John E. Steele in Fort Myers, Fla., ruled Nov. 4.

The media, Congress and the Department of Homeland Security investigated the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s spending and operations following the storms, and after the government rejected a Freedom of Information Act request from three Gannett Co. newspapers, the papers sued for the information.

“FEMA gives aid in many ways. One question we had after many hurricanes in 2004 was whether people from one city to the next, one county to the next and one storm to the next, were treated the same way,” said Kate Marymont, executive editor of the News-Press in Fort Myers, one of the papers that sought the information. “Individuals don’t have the means to go to court to fight this fight &#151 we saw this as our obligation, our duty as a watchdog.”

The district court decision made available only some of the information the newspapers were hoping to report &#151 correspondence and contracting records that FEMA has now released. The newspapers reviewed that information, which includes portions of then FEMA Director Mike Brown’s correspondence and information concerning more than $150 million in contracts, and did not find evidence of wrongdoing, Marymont said. “We hope this shows extreme fairness and balanced action &#151 we hope that is how the government worked then and continues to work.”

The newspapers &#151 the News-Press, the Pensacola News Journal and Florida Today &#151 cited the public interest in who received the aid and why in their October 2004 FOIA request for the records. Homeland Security officials 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 FOIA 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 FOIA’s personal privacy exemption covered the recipients’ 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, 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.”

“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, who represented the newspapers. And though the papers have appealed, the district court’s ruling was certainly not a total loss, he said. “We’re hopeful that the order will encourage FEMA to be more forthcoming in the future. It’s important that the court recognized the public interest in FEMA’s performance.”

In addition to the victim’s identities, the ruling also allows FEMA to withhold data compiled from a satisfaction survey of some of the aid recipients, including survey score summaries and calculations and customer comments as to how FEMA representatives handled their situations.

The newspapers filed an appeal at the end of November with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta (11th Cir.), and the parties are filing briefs. The court could either decide the case based on the parties’ submissions or agree to hear oral arguments, Lake said.