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.

Posting public employee salaries discourages favoritism

The Asbury Park Press posted on its Web site a great searchable database of federal employees and their 2008 salaries. The form allows you to search by name, agency, title or location. You can also click on the column headers (name, agency, title, salary, state, county, etc.,) to have the lists sorted in order. I didn’t know, for example, that there is a federal employee in my state (Arizona) that makes $327,000.

The paper notes the source of the data: U.S. Office of Personnel Management. It also notes a lot of caveats of how much information is kept secret: “Employees involved in security work, the FBI, CIA, Defense Department, nuclear materials, IRS, and jobs essential to national security are excluded. The list contains about 70 percent of executive branch employees, but not all departments report to the Office of Personnel Management. This list does not cover the White House, Congress, the Postal Service, and independent agencies and commissions.”

Since when is the IRS essential to national security, any more than the U.S. Parks Service or Department of Energy? I find it interesting that some agencies provide information and others don’t. The secrecy allows for cronyism and nepotism. There’s no way to identify shenanigans unless our paid government employees are public. Request the salaries of your local government employees and then find out if favoritism is occurring (family members being hired, business associates on the payroll, etc.).

I saw a similar shying away from posting government employee salaries with names by The Arizona Republic, which provides university salaries online but redacted names except for those over $95,000. I’m sorry, but everyone should be listed by name. Taxpayers pay our salaries so they ought to know what their money is going to. The public interest in preventing waste and corruption outweighs the discomfort of public employees. Without names the data are useless.

By the way, in full disclosure as a public employee, my salary is $72,200 and you can find this by requesting the records from the University of Arizona or looking it up in a binder in the UA Library. As I tell my students, they can now decide whether I am overpaid and should be docked pay or whether I don’t get paid enough – most politely remain quiet!

Citizen FOI warriors: Taking on local government

For Sunshine Week the American Society of News Editors honored citizen FOI warriors for their efforts to open up their governments. Check out the bios and you’ll see that they are active citizens from Florida, New Jersey and Virginia who saw problems in their local governments and wanted answers.

This is what open records are all about – providing citizens the means for finding out what is going on with their government. A couple in Virginia, Phil and Ellen Winter, noticed that the city failed to deposit their property tax check promptly, so they examined public records to show that the treasurer allegedly mishandled more than $400,000. The treasurer was booted out of office.

This is a great document-based story idea. Request to see records documenting when an agency receives checks and when it deposits them. If there is a long delay then that is interest lost for the agency (and therefore taxpayers losing out).

Should a Parent Have a Right to See the Tape?

Kid gets into fight in middle school right here in Columbia, Mo. Mom asks whether there is a surveillance camera. School says “yes, but you can’t watch it…” and a Sunshine scrap ensues. Why can’t she see it?

Request text messages, Twitter, Facebook discussions

State officials around the country are trying to figure out how to handle public officials’ discussions via Twitter, Facebook, texting and other electronic devices. If officials are discussing public business then those messages are public records.

Check with your government jurisdictions to find out whether they are recording Blackberry messages and other electronic communications. If they aren’t, then they should. A good starting point is to ask for e-mail messages of the major executives, such as the city manager or mayor. Then when you get to know the computer technicians and they start getting used to you, ask about other officials’ communications. Do they use a Blackberry or text on a cell phone? Ask for those communications (e.g., the incredible coverage by the Detroit Free Press based on text message records that sent the mayor to prison). Then move from there. Do they Twitter? Discuss issues on Facebook? Make sure that the public’s business is conducted in public.

52 hours to provide a list of county employees?

A requester in Maryland asked for a list of county employees with their salaries in an electronic format. Pretty simple. But the county responded saying it would charge $40 per hour for 52 hours of programming, or $2,000 (first two hours are free). That’s crazy! When this was posted on the FOI-listserv today many people offered suggestions for the reporter, including:

  • Write a story about why it takes so long for the agency to copy basic data.
  • Look at the FOI requests submitted to the agency (or a FOI log) for the past few years to see if someone else has asked for the same thing. The county might have given out the same information for free previously.
  • File a request for a breakdown of the specific calculations and documentations for that 52-hour estimate. If they actually had anything calculated it is likely unreasonable and inflated.

    DUI checkpoint records reveal vehicle pot o’ gold in California


    The Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley used DUI checkpoint data to discover police and tow-truck companies raking in millions of dollars in seized vehicles  from illegal immigrants, according to a Feb. 13 report. Reporter Ryan Gabrielson analyzed checkpoint data, car seizure records, census data and other documents to find law enforcement making big bucks from the seizures. See his explanation of how he did the story, including how he used SPSS statistical software to examine whether Hispanic neighborhoods were being targeted. Request to see impound records from your city or county to find out if seizures are up, particularly as local governments are strapped for cash. Good job, Ryan (one of the expert record hounds quoted in our Art of Access book).