Dealing with push back
The Center for Investigative Reporting
IRE regional training: Honolulu 2013
First: The request
Sample state and federal FOIAs are available at:
All states: http://www.nfoic.org/state-sample-foia-request-letters
- Federal: http://www.nfoic.org/sample-foia-request-letters
NFOIC also has a list of FOIA experts in each state available on its website
• 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.
- Know the law - read the public records law in your state at least once a year.
- Records retention schedules (Story: regulators destroyed key records.
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.
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.
- 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.
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)