Open Records:

Dealing with push back

Kendall Taggart
The Center for Investigative Reporting

IRE regional training: Honolulu 2013


First: The request


Sample state and federal FOIAs are available at:

NFOIC also has a list of FOIA experts in each state available on its website

Common Excuses


It’ll be really expensive.
It’s too complicated for you to understand.
It’s too big a dataset.
It contains private information.
Privatization – a third party company controls the database.

Others?

STrategies


Strategies

  • Assume it should be public
  • Be persistent - never let a request be ignored or you’ll train an agency that it can get away with bad habits.
  • Inspection is usually free
  • Think about what other agencies/states might have the information you need.
  • Show up in-person
  •  Example: Show up and inspect


    In California, access to grand jury testimony can be very expensive – courts can charge a higher fee for copies than other agencies. 

    We knew that the Attorney General’s office also had a copy of the testimony we were interested in, so we requested to inspect the records on-site. 

    Example: What other agencies could have the information?


    California does not require investigative files to be made public.
    Florida does.

    While investigating a police charity that was active in both states, we learned that Florida regulators had raided a phone room and found 11 of the 27 employees at a call room were felons, a violation of state law.


    More Strategies

    • If an agency names a fee, ask for an itemized breakdown of the costs. That alone will sometimes lead them to reduce it or waive it.
    • Create a paper trail – put the request and subsequent communication in writing. If you have a phone conversation, document it with a follow-up email.
    • Get the record layout for electronic records (the first row in a spreadsheet, for example).
    • Find former employees – you don’t know what you don’t know. PIOs may not be trying to help you.
    • Instructions for forms - most government forms have a set of instructions that detail out how to fill it out.

    EXAMPLE

    We were curious about some state licensed facilities. We wanted all evaluation reports, including the narratives that laid out potential problems. 

    The state agency said it would take them months to review and redact the narrative descriptions – but their own form instructions used by staff told them not to include any confidential information (i.e. names of minors)

    HAVE QUESTIONS?


    email: ktaggart@cironline.org
    phone: 510.809.2204

    Open Records

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