Wednesday, May 06, 2009
Public Records Hiding in Plain Sight
Second installment of tips and info from the New England First Amendment Coalition Freedom of Information/Investigative Journalism seminar. Check out the other installment here
- Rule of Thumb: If the public pays for it, the records are public
- Know that federal agencies have more time (20 days) to provide information than state agencies (10 days)
- Ask if the information you’re looking for has been requested before –– you can FOIA a FOIA request
- If they deny your request, ask for it in writing and keep the denials, in case you need to appeal –– and to include them in your stories
- Know the appeal process for FOIA documents and use it (It can be found here: http://www.mrm.mms.gov/FOIA/appeal.htm)
- When sending FOIA letters, ask for access to information, not copies of it, in order to circumvent costs
- They should have digital copies of the info. If they don’t, there’s probably a story there
- Use the general law/charter/document that created the agency to find out what information they have to keep and who they have to report to. Use that info to request documents you know they have to keep.
- Records Retention Schedule dictates how long they have to keep documents. RI’s can be found here: http://www.sec.state.ri.us/Archives/pra/sched_dev/general_schedules/
- Also look for agency reports to other state or federal agencies; agency indexes of lawsuits, settlements or disciplinary decision
- Get copies of their policy and procedure books –– use their language in your requests
- Settlements are public if taxpayer money is being used to pay for it
- Use the Federal Audit Clearing House to search for federal audits (to know what to request) from agencies like the local housing authority or any agency that has to make a report to the federal government: http://harvester.census.gov/sac/
- Get Federal Criminal Justice Grant applications and awards for local courts, as well as performance reviews (for past grant rewards): http://www.ojp.gov/funding/solicitations.htm
- Talk to career civil servants rather than political appointees –– they’ll be more willing (sometimes) to give you information because they are proud of their work and unconcerned about politics.
- Programmers are your friends: if an agency says it will take X amount of hours to create a document, ask to speak to the programmer. You’ll usually find the search you’re looking for can be done in a few minutes.
- Unless the fee for FOIA requests is free, don’t pay for it. Know that you can also apply for a fee waiver.
- American Community Surveys are the best census data available for smaller communities. Otherwise, the best you’ll get is the older census data. Find the ACS here: http://www.census.gov/acs/www/
Labels: FOIA, investigative journalism, seminars/workshops, tips and tricks