Sunshine Week 2017: The worst government transparency abuses
A thick fog is rolling in over Sunshine Week (March 12-18), the annual event when government transparency advocates raise awareness about the importance of access to public records. We are entering an age when officials at the highest levels seek to discredit critical reporting with “alternative facts,” “fake news” slurs, and selective access to press conferences—while making their own claims without providing much in the way to substantiate them.
But no matter how much the pundits claim we’re entering a “post-truth” era, it is crucial we defend the idea of proof. Proof is in the bureaucratic paper trails. Proof is in the accounting ledgers, the legal memos, the audits, and the police reports. Proof is in the data. When it comes to government actions, that proof is often obtained by leveraging laws like the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and state-level public records laws—except when government officials seek to ignore the rules to suppress evidence.
At the same time, this is also par for the course. As award-winning investigative reporter Shane Bauer recently posted on Twitter: “I’ve been stonewalled by the government throughout my journalistic career. I’m seriously baffled by people acting like this is brand new.”
For the third year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation presents “The Foilies,” our anti-awards identifying the times when access to information has been stymied or when government agencies have responded in the most absurd ways to records requests. Think of it as the Golden Raspberries but for government transparency, where the bad actors are actually going off script to deny the public the right to understand what business is being conducted on their behalf.
To compile these awards, EFF solicited nominations from around the country and scoured through news stories and the #FOIAFriday Twitter threads to find the worst, the silliest, and the most ridiculous responses to request for public information.
The Make America Opaque Again Award
President Donald Trump
A commitment to public transparency should start at the top.
But from the beginning of his campaign, President Trump has instead committed to opacity by refusing to release his tax returns, citing concerns about an ongoing IRS audit. Now that he’s been elected, Trump’s critics, ethics experts, and even some allies have called on him to release his tax returns and prove that he has eliminated potential conflicts of interest and sufficiently distanced himself from the businesses in his name that stand to make more money now that he’s in office. But the Trump administration has not changed its stance. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, the American public should be outraged that we now have the first sitting president since the 1970s to avoid such a baseline transparency tradition.
The Hypocrisy Award
Former Indiana Governor—and current Vice President—Mike Pence
Vice President Mike Pence cared a lot about transparency and accountability in 2016, especially when it came to email. A campaign appearance couldn’t go by without Pence or his running mate criticizing Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton for using a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State. In fact, the Foilies honored Clinton last year for her homebrewed email approach.
But Pence seemed much less bothered by those transparency and accountability concerns when he used a private AOL email address to conduct official business as Indiana’s governor. The Indianapolis Star reported in February that Pence used the account to communicate “with top advisors on topics ranging from security gates at the governor’s residence to the state’s response to terror attacks across the globe.” That means that critical homeland security information was kept in an account likely less secure than government accounts (his account was reportedly hacked too), and Pence’s communications were shielded from government records requirements.
The Frogmarch Award
Town of White Castle, Louisiana
The only thing that could’ve made reporter Chris Nakamoto’s public records request in the small town of White Castle, Louisiana a more absurd misadventure is if he’d brought Harold and Kumar along with him.
As Chief Investigator for WBRZ in Baton Rouge, Nakamoto filed records requests regarding the White Castle mayor’s salary. But when he turned up with a camera crew at city hall in March 2016 to demand missing documents, he was escorted out in handcuffs, locked in a holding cell for an hour, and charged with a misdemeanor for “remaining after being forbidden.” What’s worse is that Nakamoto was summoned to appear before the “Mayor’s Court,” a judicial proceeding conducted by the very same mayor Nakamoto was investigating. Nakamoto lawyered up and the charges were dropped two months later.
“If anything, my arrest showed that if they’ll do that to me, and I have the medium to broadcast and let people know what’s happening to me, think about how they’re treating any citizen in that town,” Nakamoto says.
The Arts and Crafts Award
Public Health Agency of Canada
Journalists are used to receiving documents covered with cross-outs and huge black boxes. But in May 2016, Associated Press reporters encountered a unique form of redaction from Public Health Agency of Canada when seeking records related to the Ebola outbreak.
As journalist Raphael Satter wrote in a letter complaining to the agency: “It appears that PHAC staff botched their attempt to redact the documents, using bits of tape and loose pieces of paper to cover information which they tried to withhold. By the time it came into my hands much of the tape had worn off and the taped pieces had been torn.”
Even the wryest transparency advocates were amused when Satter wrote about the redaction art project on Twitter, but the incident did have more serious implications. At least three Sierra Leonean medical patients had their personal information exposed. Lifting up the tape also revealed how the agency redacted information that the reporters believed should’ve been public, such as email signatures.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada said it would investigate, but Satter says he hasn’t heard anything back for 10 months.
The Whoa There, Cowboy Award
Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke
Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke rose to prominence in 2016 as one of then-candidate Donald Trump’s top surrogates, prone to making inflammatory remarks about the Black Lives Matter movement, such as calling them a hate group and linking them to ISIS. But the press has also been a regular target.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Political Watchdog Columnist Daniel Bice filed a series of records requests with the sheriff’s office, demanding everything from calendars, to details about an NRA-funded trip to Israel, to records related to a series of jail deaths. So far, Clarke has been extremely slow to release this information, while being extremely quick to smear the reporter on the sheriff’s official Facebook page. Clarke frequently refers to the publication as the “Urinal Sentinel” and has diagnosed Bice with “Sheriff Clarke Derangement Syndrome.”
“I deal with open records requests with local governments and police departments, I do it at the city, county, and state level,” Bice says. “He’s by far the worst for responding to public records.”
In May 2016 Clarke published a short essay on Facebook titled, “When Journalism Becomes an Obsession.” Clarke claimed that after he rejected Bice’s request for an interview, Bice retaliated with a series of public records requests, ignoring the fact that these requests are both routine and are often reporter’s only recourse when an official refuses to answer questions.
“This lazy man’s way of putting together newspaper columns uses tax-paid, government employees as pseudo-interns to help him gather information to write stories,” Clarke wrote.
Memo to Clarke: requesting and reviewing public records is tedious and time-consuming, and certainly not the way to score an easy scoop. If anything, ranting on Facebook, then issuing one-sentence news releases about those Facebook posts, are the lazy man’s way of being accountable to your constituents.
The Longhand Award
Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz
A local citizen in Portland, Ore. filed a records request to find out everyone that City Commissioner Amanda Fritz had blocked or muted from her Twitter account. This should’ve been easy. However, Fritz decided to go the long way, scribbling down each and every handle on a sheet of paper. She then rescanned that list in, and sent it back to the requester. The records did show that Fritz had decided to hush accounts that were trying to affect public policy, such as @DoBetterPDX, which focuses on local efforts to help homeless people, and anonymous self-described urban activist @jegjehPDX. Here’s a tip for officials who receive similar requests: all you need to do is go to your “Settings and Privacy” page, select the “Muted accounts” or “Blocked accounts” tab, and then click “export your list.”
The Wrong Address Award
U.S. Department of Justice
America Rising PAC, a conservative opposition research committee, has been filing FOIA requests on a number of issues, usually targeting Democrats. Following Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s passing, the PAC sent a FOIA to the Attorney General seeking emails referencing the death.
But America Rising never received a response acknowledging the DOJ received the request. That’s because the DOJ sent it to a random federal inmate serving time on child pornography charges. The offender, however, was nice enough to forward the message to the PAC with a note railing against the “malicious incompetence” of the Obama administration.
The Redaction of Interest Award
General Services Administration
One of the threads that reporters have tried to unravel through the Trump campaign is how the prolific businessman would separate himself from his financial interests, especially regarding his 30-year contract with the federal government to build a Trump International Hotel at the location of the federally owned Old Post Office in D.C., a paper airplane’s flight from the White House.
BuzzFeed filed a FOIA request with the General Services Administration for a copy of the contract. What they received was a highly redacted document that raised more questions than it answered, including what role Trump’s family plays in the project.
“The American taxpayer would have no clue who was getting the lease to the building,” says reporter Aram Roston, who was investigating how Trump failed to uphold promises made when he put in a proposal for the project. “You wouldn’t know who owned this project.”
After pushing back, BuzzFeed was able to get certain sections unredacted, including evidence that Trump’s three children—Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric—all received a 7.425% stake through their LLCs, seemingly without injecting any money of their own.
The Fake News Award
Santa Maria Police Department
In 2015, the Santa Maria Police Department in California joined many other agencies in using the online service Nixle to distribute public information in lieu of press releases. The agency told citizens to sign up for “trustworthy information.”
Less than a year later, police broke that trust. The Santa Maria Police posted to its Nixle account a report that two individuals had been arrested and deported, which was promptly picked up the local press. Months later, court documents revealed that it had all been a lie to ostensibly help the individuals—who had been targeted for murder by a rival gang—escape the city.
Police were fiercely unapologetic. The agency has yet to remove the offending alert from Nixle or offer any kind of addendum, a direct violation of Nixle’s terms of service, which prohibits the transmission of “fraudulent, deceptive, or misleading communications” through the service.
Elster Solutions, Landis+Gyr, Ericsson
In May 2016 several smart meter companies sued transparency website MuckRock and one of its users, Phil Mocek, in a failed attempt to permanently remove documents from the website that they claimed contained trade secrets. Some of the companies initially obtained a court order requiring MuckRock to take down public records posted to the site that the City of Seattle had already released to the requester.
But in their rush to censor MuckRock and its user, the companies overlooked one small detail: the First Amendment. The Constitution plainly protected MuckRock’s ability to publish public records one of its users lawfully obtained from the City of Seattle, regardless of whether they contained trade secrets. A judge quickly agreed, ruling that the initial order was unconstitutional and allowing the documents to be reposted on MuckRock. The case and several others filed against MuckRock and its user later settled or were dismissed outright. The documents continue to be hosted on MuckRock for all to see. But, uh, great job guys!
Federal Bureau of Investigation
The FBI spent most of 2016 doing what might be charitably described as beta testing a proprietary online FOIA portal that went live in March. But beta testing is probably a misnomer because it implies that the site actually improved after its initial rollout.
The FBI’s year of “beta testing” included initially proposing a requirement that requesters submit a copy of their photo ID before submitting a request via the portal and also imposed “operating hours” and limited the number of requests an individual could file per day.
Yet even after the FBI walked back from those proposals, the site appears designed to frustrate the public’s ability to make the premiere federal law enforcement agency more transparent. The portal limits the types of requests that can be filed digitally to people seeking information about themselves or others. Requesters cannot use the site to request information about FBI operations or activities, otherwise known as the bread and butter of FOIA requests. Oh, and the portal’s webform is capped at 3,000 characters, so brevity is very much appreciated!
Worse, now that the portal is online, the FBI has stopped accepting FOIA requests via email, meaning fax and snail mail are now supposed to be the primary (and frustratingly slow) means of sending requests to the FBI. It almost seems like the FBI is affirmatively trying to make it hard to submit FOIA requests.
U.S. Department of Justice
Documents released in 2016 in response to a FOIA lawsuit by the Freedom of the Press Foundation show that the U.S. Department of Justice secretly lobbied Congress in 2014 to kill a FOIA reform bill that had unanimously passed the U.S. House of Representatives 410-0.
But the secret axing of an overwhelmingly popular transparency bill wasn’t even the most odious aspect of DOJ’s behavior. In talking points disclosed via the lawsuit, DOJ strongly opposed codifying a “presumption of openness,” a provision that would assume by default that every government record should be disclosed to the public unless an agency could show that its release could result in foreseeable harm.
DOJ’s argument: “The proposed amendment is unacceptably damaging to the proper administration of FOIA and of the government as a whole,” which is bureaucratese for something like “What unhinged transparency nut came up with this crazy presumption of openness idea anyway?”
That would be Obama, whose FOIA guidance on his first day in office back in 2009 was the blueprint for the presumption of openness language included in the bill. Perhaps DOJ thought it had to save Obama from himself?
DOJ’s fearmongering won out and the bill died. Two years later, Congress eventually passed a much weaker FOIA reform bill, but it did include the presumption of openness DOJ had previously fought against. We’re still waiting for the “government as a whole” to collapse.
Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services
When public agencies get requests for digital data, officials can usually simply submit a query straight to the relevant database. But not in Missouri apparently, where officials must use handcrafted, shade-grown database queries by public records artisans.
At least, that’s the only explanation we can come up with for why the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services estimated that it would take roughly 35,000 hours and $1.5 million to respond to an exceedingly simple request for state birth and death data.
Nonprofit Reclaim the Records, whose name pretty eloquently sums up its mission, believed that a simple database query combined with copy and paste was all that was needed to fulfill its request. Missouri officials begged to differ, estimating that it would take them the equivalent of a person working around the clock for more than four years to compile the list by hand.
Although the fee estimate is not the highest the Foilies has ever seen—that honor goes to the Pentagon for its $660 million estimate in response to a MuckRock user’s FOIA request last year—Missouri’s estimate was outrageous. Stranger still, the agency later revised their estimated costs down to $5,000 without any real explanation. Reclaim the Records tried negotiating further with officials, but to no avail, as officials ultimately said they could not fulfill the request. Reclaim the Records has since filed a lawsuit for the data.
New Orleans City Marshall
Public officials often dehumanize the news media to score cheap points, but can the same ploy work when fighting public records requests? That’s the issue in a very strange case between the IND, a Lafayette media outlet, and a city marshal. After the marshal lost his bid to keep records secret in the trial court, he appealed on the grounds that IND had no right to bring the lawsuit in the first place.
The marshal, who faced fines, community service, and house arrest for failing to turn over records, argues that Louisiana’s public records law requires that a living, breathing human make a request, not a corporate entity such as IND.
Make no mistake: there is no dispute that an actual human filed the request, which sought records relating to a bizarre news conference in which the marshal allegedly used his public office to make baseless allegations against a political opponent. Instead, the dispute centers on a legal formalism of whether IND can sue on its own behalf, rather than suing under the name of the reporter. The marshal’s seemingly ridiculous argument does have some basis in the text of the statute, which defines a requester as a person who is at least 18 years old.
That said, it’s an incredibly cynical argument, putting the letter well over the spirit of the law in what appears to be a well-documented effort by the marshal to violate the law and block public access. We hope the learned Louisiana appellate judges see through this blatant attempt to short-circuit the public records law.
The Lethal Redaction Award
States of Texas and Arizona
BuzzFeed Reporters Chris McDaniel and Tasneem Nashrulla have been on a quest to find out where states like Texas and Arizona are obtaining drugs used in lethal injection, as some pharmaceutical suppliers have decided not to participate in the capital punishment machine. But these states are fighting to keep the names of their new suppliers secret, refusing to release anything identifying the companies in response to BuzzFeed’s FOIA requests.
At the crux of the investigation is whether the states attempted to obtain the drugs illegally from India. At least one shipment is currently being detained by the FDA. The reason for transparency is obvious if one looks only at one previously botched purchase the reporters uncovered: Texas had tried to source pentobarbital from an Indian company called Provizer Pharma, run by five 20-year-olds. Indian authorities raided their offices for allegedly selling psychotropic drugs and opioids before the order could be fulfilled.
Secretary of the Massachusetts Commonwealth
Updates to Massachusetts’ public records laws were set to take effect in January 2016, with Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin tasked with promulgating new regulations to clear up the vague language of the law. But Galvin didn’t exactly take his duty seriously. Instead he crafted a regulation allowing his office to dodge requirements that public records appeals be handled in a timely fashion. But no regulation could take affect without public hearing. So he went through the motions and dispatched an underling to sit at a table and wait out the public comment – but didn’t keep any kind of record of what was said. A close-up captured by a Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism reporter showed a pen lying on a blank pad of paper. Asked by a reporter about the lack of notes, the underling said, “I was just here to conduct this hearing. That’s all I can say.”