Headed out on 45-day national access training tour

Today I head out on a 45-day road trip, “Access Across America,” to conduct FOI training in newsrooms and for community groups. It should be a blast!

As I talk to journalists and citizens each day, I’ll take notes and post tips and thoughts on the Access Across America blog. Check out the site for a list of where I’m headed. Let me know if I’m in your town!

Technology and FOI law

An interesting, if somewhat non-newsworthy, look at the ways in which technology bedevils FOI law, by Advertising Age. I wonder how this writer pitched this story? Nice work getting in, though! While little of this is revelatory, it’s a nice recap.

Push for disclosure of university slush funds (foundations)

One of the most shameful government cover-ups in this country involves the use of non-profit foundations by public universities to hide shenanigans. Push for your legislature to require university foundations to be subject to your public records law.

That’s something California is considering since time after time foundations have been found to be slush funds for hiding embarrassing information. For example, see the 2007 Daily Bruin article about how big donors would get their kids into competitive programs through six-figure bribes. The latest flap is over a foundation’s big payment to get Sarah Palin to speak at Cal State. The universities claim that if they divulged donor information it would chill giving. On the other side, it might chill corruption.

Create ‘Doc Squad’ in your state

ProPublica is creating a cool “Reporting Network Doc Squad” to establish people around the country who can request records from state governments as needed. This is particularly important because five states don’t respond to out-of-state requests (Tennessee, Virginia, Arkansas, Georgia and Delaware). These rules that prohibit out-of-state requests are archaic and should be dropped.

ProPublica inspires a great idea for doing statewide stories using records requests. It can be daunting driving around the state asking for records. So create  your own state’s Doc Squad with access pros throughout the state to gather records for large-scale projects. Might be a good initiative for a coalition for open government in your state.

A Great FOI Idea: Request FBI files on your company

Why not make an FOI request from the FBI to see if they have files…on your paper? The St. Louis Post-Dispatch did, and the result was a fascinating pile of FBI records! Here’s a site to find out how to submit a FOIA request for your own FBI file, as well: Get My FBI File, or check this out for getting a deceased relative’s FBI file.

Expose hypocrisy: Examine agency data sales

If you’ve been denied records or data from a government agency on flimsy grounds, request to find out if the agency sells the same data to commercial users for profit.

That’s what The Oklahoman and Tulsa World did (see story). They requested a database of state employees, including date of birth and salaries, to identify criminal state employees. The state denied the request, saying the information invades employee privacy and could lead to identity theft. So the papers found out that the state sells the same information (including driver’s license information) to insurance companies, the military, lawyers and creditors, raking in more than $65 million over the past five years.

In other words, the state has no problem selling out their employees’ privacy or exposing them to identity theft when they can make money off it. But they oppose making information available to journalists who would uncover nepotism, employees who are convicted felons, and other problems. The state’s argument is hypocritical. They can keep trying to justify secrecy, but as those Oklahoma papers showed, that dog don’t hunt.

Mississippi to shorten request response time

I see the Mississippi Legislature passed a bill to shorten the amount of time an agency has to respond to a records request, from 14 days to seven days (see story).

“Right now it’s 14 days, two weeks; that’s about the longest in the country and frankly in most cases it’s too long to wait,” Mississippi state Sen. David Blount said.

Yeah, he’s right. Fourteen days is WAY too long to get a simple response. So why does the most powerful government in the world need 20 days to respond to a FOIA request? Time to change the response time at the federal level too.

I’ve found in my research that five days is reasonable. In Arizona, where there is no statutory deadline for response, agencies respond on average in about five days (when I sent requests to all school districts and all law enforcement agencies). If Arizona had a seven-day deadline it is likely we would get responses even later. In my opinion, any statutory deadline longer than five days is bad for citizens. There should either be no deadline or make it three business days. After all, it doesn’t take that long to look at a request and then provide a response, even if it is “we need another week or two to round up the records.”