Wellstone FOI Files Reveal Threats on Late Senator

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Eight years ago today, Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash in northern Minnesota. Now, FBI records show the agency investigated several threats against the late senator but never prosecuted anyone for them.

Minnesota Public Radio citing files it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The files show the threats started shortly after the Minnesota Democrat’s arrival in Washington on the eve of the first Gulf War, which he vocally opposed.

The files also show the FBI first took interest in Wellstone in 1970 when he was arrested during a Vietnam War protest. And they show that an investigation of the plane crash that killed Wellstone, his wife Sheila and six others found no indication of criminal activity.


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Dallas Mavericks Owner Cuban Enters the FOIA Biz…

Already a player in his quest for SEC docs, Mark Cuban is shining the light on federal travel as well…

A new website aimed at tracking how much money agencies spend on federal travel just launched.

JunketSleuth.com will monitor through Freedom of Information Act requests official travel patterns of federal employees, allowing users to search government travel records. The site is a sister of BailoutSleuth.com, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative reporting site that tracks the flow of money allocated through the Troubled Asset Relief Program and other economic initiatives.

“The main reason we’re doing this is transparency and openness in government,” said Chris Carey, editor and president of BailoutSleuth.com, which runs JunketSleuth. “These are tough economic times, businesses are cutting [back], individuals are cutting back, and we’re wondering, is the government cutting back on travel? By putting up the databases, we hope people can look for themselves.”

A Great Look At the Damage Done By Secrecy…

In today’s Washington Post, a great story of the damage wrought by an FOI exemption:

Under the law, investigators cannot reveal federal firearms tracing information that shows how often a dealer sells guns that end up seized in crimes. The law effectively shields retailers from lawsuits, academic study and public scrutiny. It also keeps the spotlight off the relationship between rogue gun dealers and the black market in firearms.

Such information used to be available under a simple Freedom of Information Act request. But seven years ago, under pressure from the gun lobby, Congress blacked out the information by passing the so-called Tiahrt amendment, named for Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.). The law removed from the public record a government database that traces guns recovered in crimes back to the dealers.


Great FOI Idea: Lobbying records…

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The Daily Herald in suburban Chicago weighs in with a nice piece on the use of lobbyists paid for by tax dollars:

In a climate of austerity, transit agencies are shelling out millions for high-paid state and federal lobbyists. But whether riders are getting their money’s worth is elusive to prove.

Dispatching lobbyists to Springfield or Washington, D.C., is essential to get the ear of lawmakers, influence government policy and secure funding, transit officials say.

Through Freedom of Information Act requests, the Daily Herald learned the following.

• Since 2004, the four transit agencies spent more than $12.8 million for 27 lobbyists. On several occasions, agencies employed the same firms.

• In 2009, a year of shortfalls and doomsday predictions, the four agencies paid 20 lobbying firms nearly $2.5 million.

• Lobbyists hired by the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, RTA and Pace have poured $1.8 million into state lawmakers’ election campaigns, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.

• Transit officials claim money invested in lobbying has resulted in millions of dollars, but the transit system is perpetually short of funding for both capital and operating needs.

• If you want some way to independently measure what lobbyists do for their employers, good luck. Although lobbyists are expected to issue regular reports to transit agencies describing their activities, the Daily Herald’s request for that information was denied.

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Ga. First Amendment Foundation Steps in to Divorce Records Flap

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A Tift County judge is scheduled to consider arguments Tuesday on whether to open the sealed divorce records of 8th Congressional District candidate Austin Scott.

Amy Morton of Macon originally asked the court to unseal the records, which were closed three years after the divorce in 2001. Now the Georgia First Amendment Foundation joined in the request. The foundation argues that the records should be public for the Republican state representative from Tifton because they were originally open.


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A Facial Challenge to FERPA?

Thanks to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

The Iowa Supreme Court will weigh whether a federal student privacy law should override a state open records law, after the court heard oral arguments Oct. 15 over a university’s withholding of documents in a sexual assault case.

In November 2007, the Iowa City Press-Citizen requested records from the University of Iowa about an alleged sexual assault involving two members of the football team that occurred one month earlier. The paper filed a lawsuit in 2008 after five requests under Iowa’s open records law produced only 18 released documents, The Des Moines Register reported.

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A Million Bucks for a 4-year-old request?

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From 9 News in Denver

When 9Wants to Know got a tip that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) might be placing some injured screeners in other government jobs and paying them two government salaries, the investigative unit decided to check it out by filing a (FOIA) request asking about injuries and new job placements.

Four years later, 9NEWS got a reply. The TSA said to provide the information requested, it “will have to perform a manual review of all 59,083 claim records,” which will take approximately “29,541 hours” and cost $1,181,660. The letter did not say if it would take another four years to make the copies.

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FOI At Work…

From the LA Times:

Obama administration officials knew they did not have all the facts last summer when they rushed to dismiss Shirley Sherrod from the Agriculture Department after learning of a video that painted her as a racist, newly released e-mails show.

The day after Sherrod’s ouster, even as USDA officials acknowledged in internal memos that they had not seen the full video, a White House senior aide e-mailed them to commend the department for moving quickly so the story would not gain “traction.”

As it turned out, Sherrod had been falsely accused, and the actions taken by Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack and his senior staff became a major embarrassment for the Obama administration, raising questions about its basic competence and its preoccupation with public perceptions.

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Albuquerque Embraces Data Transparency

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A nice look at Albuquerque’s new openness initiative

New Mexico ranked 44th among states in the latest transparency rankings by the Sunshine Review. The City of Albuquerque is trying to change that.

The state’s largest city recently unveiled its ABQ View website, which provides a comprehensive look at how the city collects and spends its money.

“ABQ View puts our city government at the forefront of what open government should look like for cities around the country,” Mayor Richard Berry said when he announced the site in August. “I fully expect the public and media to scrutinize and thoroughly examine this data now that it is easily accessible and searchable online,” he said.

In a section titled, “Where Do My Taxes Go,” the site offers breakdowns on city spending in categories such as Budget, City Checkbook, City Contracts and Graded Employee Hourly Rates. Other sections provide details on political contributions to city officials, city employee travel expenses and current audits and investigations. Another section lists the city’s building projects.


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FOI At Work: Don’t Hitchhike in Texas!

Thanks to USA Today for this nice piece of FOI work, localized here by the Austin American-Statesman:

The gist of USA Today’s story:

“During the past four decades, at least 459 people may have died at the hands of highway serial killers, FBI statistics show. Investigators do not know how many people may be responsible for the killings but at least one such case — of murder, attempted murder or unidentified human remains — has been reported in 48 states, along roads as far north as Alaska and as far south as Key West. They believe the killers find their victims and dispose of the bodies along highways, sometimes near quiet roadside rest areas or at bustling truck stops.”

A nice map here that also contains the full USA Today story.

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