A Great Records-Rich Story on a Tennessee Property Tax Soak

Memphis Commercial Appeal reporters Marc Perrusquia and Grant Smith (a former student!) just published a series that peels away the curtain to reveal a law originally intended to keep farmers from losing their farmland turned in to a cash cow for rich landowners.

From the first story:

An investigation by The Commercial Appeal and its sister publication, the Knoxville New-Sentinel, found Lightman and many other savvy property owners across Tennessee are reaping dramatic tax savings — often paying pennies on the dollar — because a 1976 law to prevent farmers from being taxed off their land is full of loopholes and timidly enforced by many of the state’s 95 assessors.The newspaper found more than half of the land in Tennessee — nearly 15 million acres — is enrolled in the program protecting farmland, the vast majority in rural counties where agriculture is the dominant industry. Yet, in urban areas the tax rolls evidence significant abuse — from wealthy estate owners living in mansions on huge tracts to real estate developers escaping much of their annual tax bills by declaring a woods a timber preserve, a manicured lawn a pasture, a future subdivision a farm. And, by all accounts, it’s legal.

It’s a great read, and without access to records, it’s not possible.

The Commercial Appeal

The Commercial Appeal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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How Many People Are Trapped in Elevators on Your Campus?

Here is a cool little FOI-driven story

elevator

elevator (Photo credit: Jose R. Borras)

from the student paper at the University of Texas-Arlington:

Brushing shoulder to shoulder, a group of eight Phi Mu Alpha fraternity members crammed into a Fine Arts Building elevator at 8 p.m. in October of last year. Hungry and matted with saturated sweat from marching band practice an hour earlier, the students talked about showering and going out for dinner.

Ding — The elevator passed the third floor. Suddenly, the elevator made an unfamiliar beeping noise, jerked slightly, tossing them, and then stopped.

Music education senior Andres Soto pressed the emergency button to call police and the dispatcher told him the bad news. The dispatcher estimated the men would have to wait about an hour before an elevator technician would arrive and open the doors, Soto said.

Their incident was inconvenient, Soto said. However, it’s not rare. Nearly 800 reports of people trapped in elevators were made between Jan. 1, 2002, and Aug. 26, 2012, according to open records obtained by The Shorthorn in August.

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The Detroit Free Press Weighs in With a Massive FOI Project

Parole long has been a rich area of investigative reporting. Few outlets have gone to the lengths the Detroit Free Press went to in this GREAT FOI-driven series! Kudos to the reporters and editors who toiled on this important series and to the newspaper’s editorial board, who have been hammering away at the state for its lax oversight of criminals released with little or no supervision…

See the whole project here. It’s a must read for anyone interested in seeing some of the best reporting on the subject ever — and for FOI junkies interested in the knockdown, dragout battles to obtain the information that built the series.

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Assange: An Enemy of the State?

THE US military has designated Julian Assange and WikiLeaks as enemies of the United States – the same legal category as the al-Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban insurgency.

Declassified US Air Force counter-intelligence documents, released under US freedom-of-information laws, reveal that military personnel who contact WikiLeaks or WikiLeaks supporters may be at risk of being charged with “communicating with the enemy”, a military crime that carries a maximum sentence of death.
Read more here here. And here

Julian Assange (1)

Julian Assange (1) (Photo credit: bbwbryant)

.

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Nice little FOI-driven daily story on the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry ending on the gridiron. Wish that folks would add a “MADE POSSIBLE BY OPEN RECORDS…” button on these stories.

Notre Dame is opting out of its series with Michigan, meaning the last scheduled game between college football’s winningest programs will take place in 2014.

A letter from Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick to Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon cancelling games in 2015-17 was obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Brandon told the AP he was handed the letter on the field in South Bend, Ind., about an hour before Saturday night’s game.

“I put the letter in my pocket and didn’t bother to read it right away because I was focused on the game we were about to play,” Brandon said. “I read it on the way home Sunday morning.”

More here.

Texas AG’s War With Washington Costing Dearly…

A nice piece of FOI-driven reportage:

The slogan goes, “Don’t Mess With Texas.” But with President Barack Obama in the White House a more appropriate cry might be: “Try it and

texas our texas

texas our texas (Photo credit: jmtimages)

we’ll sue.”

The Texas attorney general’s office has filed 24 lawsuits against the federal government since Obama took office — litigation that has cost the state $2.58 million and more than 14,113 hours spent by staff and state lawyers working those cases.

Many of those have resulted in defeats, including the recent high-profile lawsuits defending Texas’ strict law requiring voters to show picture ID at the polls and the new state-approved voting districts that a federal appeals court ruled were discriminatory toward minorities.

Those two cases alone cost more than $2 million, according to records obtained by The Associated Press using the Freedom of Information Act.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said the costs are worth it, calling the litigation “a fight against the unprecedented ideology coming from the Obama administration.” In an interview, he said the legal battles he wages are meant to promote industry and protect Texas jobs.

 

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The TSA Complaint Files: A Nightmarish Trek Into the Security State

Good ‘ol Government Attic yanked down hundred of TSA complaint letters through FOIA, and the results are eye-opening:

Read together, hundreds of letters complaining about Transportation Safety Administration security excesses acquire a horrible and sickening power.

Not in the graphic descriptions of genitals groped, terminal ailments revealed or utter powerlessness before government endured. Rather, it’s how often in the face of violation and outrage the victims somehow manage dignity, courtesy and self-effacement.

Governmentattic.org, a non-profit website whose slogan is ‘videre licet,’ roughly translated from Latin as “permitting to see” posted 205 pages of these letters from 2010 obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Airline passengers from all over the country addressed complaints to President Obama, Janet Napolitano, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, senators, congressmen, their local newspapers and Anderson Cooper at CNN…

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Breaking News of Global Import: White House Releases a Beer Recipe!

Proof that transparency, like beer, is good for us and proof that God loves us:

With public excitement about White House beer fermenting such a buzz, we decided we better hop right to it.

Inspired by home brewers from across the country, last year President Obama bought a home brewing kit for the kitchen. After the few first drafts we landed on some great recipes that came from a local brew shop. We received some tips from a couple of home brewers who work in the White House who helped us amend it and make it our own. To be honest, we were surprised that the beer turned out so well since none of us had brewed beer before.

As far as we know the White House Honey Brown Ale is the first alcohol brewed or distilled on the White House grounds. George Washington brewed beer and distilled whiskey at Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson made wine but there’s no evidence that any beer has been brewed in the White House. (Although we do know there was some drinking during prohibition…)

And….the recipes.

Ray Bradbury’s FOI File:

Was there any writer the FBI didn’t track back in the day? The FOI file reveals the extent of the creepy tracking of the sic-fi genius:

The FBI gave Ray Bradbury a mixed review.

Photo of Ray Bradbury.

Photo of Ray Bradbury. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to documents declassified recently through the Freedom of Information Act, the bureau investigated the “Fahrenheit 451” author in the 1950s and 1960s because of suspected communist sympathies.

One informant warned agents that Bradbury, who died June 5 at age 91, wrote stories that were “definitely slanted” against capitalism. The informant added that science fiction itself could so terrify readers that they would succumb to “incompetence bordering on hysteria” and would be helpless during a third world war.

The bureau noted Bradbury’s opposition to Sen. Joe McCarthy and other anti-Communists and his support for civil rights. But it concluded that Bradbury had never been in the Communist Partyand that interviewing him was unnecessary because he did not have “informant potential.”

 

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FOI AT Work: Outing the Water Hogs In Austin…

What a GREAT FOI-driven story idea, especially given how hot and dry most of the country is these days. An FOI request for the top water hogs, coupled with voter records…

Water Drop

Water Drop (Photo credit: Isolino)

Here’s the lede:

A few years back, Lance Armstrong was caught. He apologized, admitted the error of his ways, and promised to do better in the future. His offense? Using too much water.

Armstrong had used 330,000 gallons of water in July 2008. He hadn’t even been home at his three acre, 14,475 square foot estate. “I’m a little shocked,” he told The New York Times at the time. “There’s no justification for that much water. I need to fix this.”

Well, it’s been several summers since then, this last one being notable for being the hottest and driest on record. And the city is in stage two watering restrictions because of the historic drought.  But it would appear Armstrong has not learned how to conserve. According to data from Austin Water Utility, he used around 1.3 million gallons of water in the last year, putting him among the top ten residential users of water in town.

Armstrong isn’t alone in using excessive amounts of water. In fact, he’s not even the worst offender. That would be Roger Girling, who owns a home health care company. He used 1.9 million gallons of water in the last year. Also on the list of the top twenty-five residential water users in Austin? Venture capitalist Paul Zito, car dealers Doug Maund and Steven Late, and Congressman Michael McCaul, who went through 1.4 million gallons of water in the last year.

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