A Great American Tradition: Suing Them Yourself…

A riveting account of suing the government over FOIA, from a pro se litigant’s perspective:

Inside well-funded newsrooms, investigative reporters can usually turn to company lawyers for help with stalled public records requests. But independent freelancers don’t have that luxury, and many can’t afford to hire legal counsel on their own. So when the time comes to stop asking the government for public records and start demanding them, what can a low-to-no budget freelancer without legal counsel do?

To start, it’s possible to act as your own attorney and sue for access to information without the benefit of legal counsel—a tactic called pro se representation. Over the past few years, as the U.S. economy has taken a nosedive, more and more people have elected to save on legal fees by representing themselves in court. “It’s generally a bad idea for people to represent themselves in court, period,” said Geoff King, Northern California’s SPJ FOI committee co-chair and a former staff attorney for the First Amendment Project. King, ever the comedian, quoted an adage to me via e-mail: “A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.” Still, when it comes to FOIA-related lawsuits, there are plenty of resources out there to prevent pro se litigants from looking silly.

Ohio Auditor: State FOI Law Sickly…

Ohio Auditor Dave Yost figures that if his office can’t quickly obtain public records, the average Ohioan faces “pretty tough odds.”

Yost today proclaimed that the “public records law in Ohio is alive, but not well” as he released a study of cities’ responses to his office’s request on Oct. 17 for copies of their annual payrolls.

Forty percent of Ohio’s 247 cities failed to provide records within the requested seven to 10 days, a figure that the auditor declared “unacceptable.” Within a month, 77 percent of cities had turned over their payrolls.

Two cities, Niles and Campbell in northeastern Ohio, still have not responded.

State law does not specify a time frame within which public-records requests must be fulfilled, instead using a “reasonable” standard. Yost said cities should be able to provide routine documents within two days.

“These documents belong to the people” and should be made available without delay, Yost said at a news conference that marked “Sunshine Week,” a national campaign to promote government transparency.

More here.

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West Virginia e-mail proposal dies…

Lawmakers have rejected an effort to revise West Virginia’s open records law, defeating a proposal that aimed to open personal emails sent from government accounts to public scrutiny based on the subject matter.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to reject a bill that would define a public record as any written information prepared or received by a public body, if its content or context relates to the conduct of public business.

Earlier this session, the House of Delegates unanimously approved the change. Legislators have sought to revise the definition since a 2009 state Supreme Court ruling found that the state’s records law did not apply to personal emails sent by a sitting justice and a party in a case before the court.

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Exemption for professors dies a quiet death in Maryland…

A bill introduced in the General Assembly to shield professors at state universities from politics-driven public record requests has been withdrawn after its House sponsor concluded no new law was needed.

The Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association, which had opposed the bill at public hearings, hailed the decision by Del. Sandy Rosenberg as “good news.”

Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, had introduced a bill that would have broadened the categories of information that universities could deny in response to requests under the state’s Public Information Act.

He said the legislation was prompted in part by a case in Wisconsin where the state Republican Party sought the emails of aUniversity of Wisconsin history professor in an attempt to show he had misused his position to intervene in a nationally watched dispute in that state over the collective bargaining rights of public employees.

Once released, the emails failed to support the GOP’s suspicions, but some academics said such requests could have a chilling effect on professors who wanted to weigh in on public issues. Rosenberg said the purpose of his bill was to protect academic freedom from “requests that appear very political in nature.”

John J. Murphy, executive director of the press association, said his group — which represents media outlets including The Baltimore Sun — thought the bill went too far.

“We thought the current law as it now stands protects academics from harassment,” he said.

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FOI At Work: E-mails document Sherrod reaction in White House

A new trove of emails acquired by Judicial Watch show that the White House was intimately involved in managing the fallout from the Shirley Sherrod story, in which the USDA employee was forced to resign after Andrew Breitbart posted a fragmented video of one of her speeches to his website, Big Government.

At the time, then-White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs blamed Sherrod’s firing onAgriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and said the White House had been informed but not “consulted” about the firing. In fact, the White House was involved almost from the moment the story broke, and USDA officials understood some of the larger context of her statements before they forced her resignation.

The emails, acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request, show that the White House both knew about the story from the beginning and signed off on the wording of Vilsack’s statement explaining his acceptance of Sherrod’s resignation the evening it happened.

Some of this timeline was already revealed through an August 2010 Associated Press story, based on interviews with White House and USDA officials, that found “a greater level of White House involvement in the incident than officials initially let on.”

But the emails provide a newly detailed portrait of the panic that beset the USDA and White House as the story gathered steam – panic driven in part by fear of what Fox News would do with it. The emails also show how that panic pushed USDA officials to rush past the partial context that was already embedded in the original video out of worries over how the story would play.

The White House learned there was a problem in the middle of the afternoon of Monday, July 19, 2010. That morning, Breitbart posted a clip of Sherrod giving a speech to an NAACP audience in Georgia in which she recounted a story about not giving a white farmer the “full force of what I could do” back in 1986, writing that it was a “racist tale.”

Wisconsin Supremes Take Dispute Over Public Records Status of Legal Bills

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether a law firm must disclose redacted portions of legal bills to a Juneau County newspaper under the state’s open records laws. The case is one of four recently accepted for review during the current term.

A lawyer with the Crivello Carlson law firm served as counsel to Juneau County’s sheriff in connection with a disciplinary matter. Juneau County retained the lawyer under its insurance contract, which covered the county’s defense in this type of disciplinary proceeding.

Crivello Carlsen sent its legal bills to the county’s insurer, Wisconsin County Mutual Insurance Corp. (WCMIC). Eventually, a reporter for the Juneau County Star-Times made a public records request for the legal bills.

The law firm provided redacted versions of the bills to the newspaper. The newspaper then sued the county, seeking the redacted portions of the legal bills. The circuit court granted summary judgment to the county, but an appeals court reversed.

In Juneau County Star-Times v. Juneau County, 2010AP2313, the supreme court is expected to decide whether the law firm must disclose the redacted portions of the legal bills submitted to the insurance company for legal services rendered to the county.

FOI At Work: D.C. Unrivaled in Parking Ticket Revenue

The cost of gasoline may be gnawing a hole in many wallets, but the cost of going nowhere in the District cost people who failed to mind the parking meter a record $92.6 million last year.

That amount for fiscal 2011 was more than $12 million higher than the previous year, according to data that the American Automobile Association obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request.

“When it comes to the sheer number of parking tickets written each day and the overall amount of parking ticket fines collected, the District of Columbia is the envy of cities large and small around the country,” said John B. Townsend II of AAA.

Townsend calculated that the District takes in an average of $370,000 in parking fines every working day of the year.

“If the city were to stack the amount of parking fines collected in single dollar bills, it would nearly reach to the average altitude that a commercial airliner flies above the surface of the Earth,” Townsend said.

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