These are my notes from the great Freedom of Information conference, held at the Boston Globe, 5/1/09 (Bill Shelton was there and had taken part in the planning of it as a member of the sponsoring New England First Amendment Coalition) As an aside, I will say I’ve already used www.pipl.com a bunch of times since the conference and the information that comes up is frequently quite interesting!
In some places, there will be information attributed to one panel that actually came from another, but it made sense to put all of one kind of information together.
Mark Benjamin and Matt Kaufman said to breed a FOI culture in your town.
• Government information is YOUR information. You own it.
• Be confident
• Know the law and key policies, e.g. re: personnel, police records. If you need help, contact the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, www.rcpf.org
• Know when not to use FOI – sometimes easier and better (less adversarial) to just go nicely to the recordkeeper and ask, especially if it’s a career civil servant who is proud of his/her job and actually holds the records. Try to keep the lawyers and political appointees away from the request, because they’ll get very jumpy, but the recordholder may just give you the records.
• Know HOW to use FOI: Learn to craft an FOI request, and an appeal. Understand the timetables
• Be willing to negotiate (sometimes)
• Do not take “No” for an answer, and know the common excuses
• Spread the word about FOI
• Seek friendly advice from FOI experts
Joe Bergantino, Maggie Mulvihill, ? Armstrong, ? Bass, from New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University (apparently an investigative reporting collective!)
• Always ask if the information you’re requesting has been requested before. The answer will tip you off to whether someone else is also investigating the issue.
• If the issue involves the use of public money, i.e. tax money used for the settlement of a police misconduct case involving the state police, then you CAN still get it under FOI even if the victim of the case has agreed to privacy provisions as part of the settlement.
• The Supervisor of Public Records (Galvin) has bulletins about FOI. Also, use the Public Records Handbook on his website.
• Always ask for access to records, not copies. One way they discourage the use of FOI is to charge excessive copying charges. The recordkeeper has to give a very detailed cost estimate of the fees. Frequently fees are charges to give the appearance of cooperation when actually the opposite is true. Don’t ever accept the first fee estimate. Try to get them to give you the records free. If they say it will cost $1000 for 10 hours of copying, then they’re paying someone $100/hour to photocopy. Make that public!
• Ask for digital records – those should not incur massive charges. If they say they don’t have digital records, ask why not? In 2009, state and local agencies should have pretty much everything current in an electronic form. If the records are not computerized, that may be a story in itself. You have the right to ask for a waver if what you’re asking for is in the public interest. If you make your request by phone or in person, you do not need to identify who you are or your reason for wanting the records.
• Use www.lawlib.state.ma.us for Code of Massachusett Regulations and lots of other stuff too.
• The statewide records retention schedule is on Galvin’s website, under “records management unit”
• The Federal Audit Clearinghouse http://harvester.census.gov/sac has audits of most state agencies.
• Court records: State and federal judges must issue written impoundment orders if document are impounded. You can get access to the impoundment orders.
• If courts get grants, get the applications and performance reviews on the OJP website http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov
• If your request for records is denied, go very public with that denial!
• There’s misplaced concern about public records and identity theft. Some agencies are denying records based on this fear. Not true.
• If you can get to the programmer of the agency, talk to them. They often will give things easily.
• Never start a FOI request and then quit! Keep going until you get the record, otherwise agencies will think that obfuscation will work.
If you get stuck, call Lucy Daglish (sp?), Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, 1-800-335-4243. ____________________________________________________________
Todd Wallack, business report for the Globe, lives in Somerville! 617-929-2069. TWallack@Globe.com Ask him to e-mail you slides from conference with proper website info (some are incomplete below).
www.usaspending.gov Where federal dollars go, into state agencies. Search by company name, by state, by congressional district, etc. (That’s VERY interesting.)
www.comm-pass.com – Massachusetts version, not as good as fed version.
Use these to see who has contracts with feds?
SEC filings (I missed this website)
Labor Unions: Labor Unions have to file LM-2 form annually with department of labor. Can see these on website (get site from Todd)
Social Networking sites: Use the Advanced Search option on the Linked In page for much deeper information. Journalists will be given free extra benefits if you contact Linked In.
Always scour a group’s official web site
Use Google to search within a particular website
Look up old versions of the web site at www.archive.org ! (quite fun!)
Ask experts for other sites.
Use USA.Gov to get into state stuff too
Read Al’s Morning Meeting http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=2
National Conference of State Legislators www.NCSL.org
Mark Horvit, Exec. Dir., Investigative Reporters and Editors. firstname.lastname@example.org to get list of sites.
How to find out stuff about people:
To find out background on people, www.reporter.org/desktop/tips/johndoe.htm
http://pipl.com Comes up with pretty amazing stuff on people!
To uncover who owns a website, http://www.domaintools.com
www.allwhois.com to discover who runs a website.
Dead government: http://govinfo.library.unt.edu public access to websites of defunct govt. agencies
GAO excluded parties list: www.epls.gov
http://www.publicintegrity.org state disclosure
www.maplight.org – mashes together campaign contributions and votes. Look at the training video so you understand!
National Institute for Computer Assisted Research.