Shadows of secrecy begin to spread across federal government

Doc URL: http://elvisb.ap.org/News/Stories/CTCB-2017-Aug-24-001154/CTCB-2017-Aug-24-001154.docx

Slug: AP-US–Sunshine Year-Washington,ADV17
Headline: Shadows of secrecy begin to spread across federal government
Summary: The Trump administration is keeping White House visitor logs private, has threatened to ignore requests for information from Congress and has attempted to draw curtains around the daily press briefings. In Congress, meanwhile, Senate Republicans wrote their health care overhaul bill in private. Those are some examples of the information shadows spreading across the federal government. Yet it’s not clear how much Americans care.
Extended Headline: The Trump administration is keeping White House visitor logs private, has threatened to ignore requests for information from Congress and has attempted to draw curtains around the daily press briefings
Editors Note: Eds: Moving in advance for use on Sunday, Sept. 17, and thereafter. With BC-US–Sunshine Year-States of Denial. Photos, illustration. With AP Photos.; FOR RELEASE SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 2017, AT 3:03 A.M. EDT.
Urgency: Non Urgent
Byline: By LAURIE KELLMAN
Bytitle: Associated Press
Dateline: WASHINGTON
Pub Eds note: Part of an ongoing examination of threats to First Amendment freedoms by The Associated Press, the American Society of News Editors and Associated Press Media Editors.

 

WASHINGTON (AP) — There are cracks in the curtains President Donald Trump tried to draw around the government early in his presidency, but the slivers of light aren’t making it easier to hold federal officials accountable for their actions.

Trump still refuses to divest from his real estate and hotel empire or release virtually any of his tax returns. His administration is vigorously pursuing whistleblowers. Among scores of vacant senior jobs in the government is an inspector general for the Department of Energy — led by Secretary Rick Perry, former governor of Texas — as it helps drive the region’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey.

Rebuilding from the deadly storm seems certain to be a $100 billion-plus endeavor involving multiple federal departments and an army of government contractors. If the ghosts of Katrina, Sandy and other big storms are guides, the bonanza of taxpayer dollars is a recipe for corruption. And that makes transparency and accountability all the more critical for a president who has bristled at the suggestion of either one.

“This is an administration that wants to do things their own way and a president that wants to do things his own way,” said Rick Blum, director of News Media for Open Government, of which The Associated Press is a member. “(Trump) is frustrated by the institutions our founders established. And he’s going to have to learn that the public deserves a free and independent press.”

To be sure, Trump has not backed off his fury with the media or his branding of reporters as “enemies of the people” who want to harm the country. He still calls revelations he doesn’t like “fake news.” And he tweets untruths himself, including that he witnessed Harvey’s devastation “first hand” during his first visit to Texas on the edges of the disaster zone.

Still, a new slate of top aides, including White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and presidential spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, seems to have opened pinpricks of light and lowered the temperature in the daily White House briefing.

Trump has let fade his threat to scrap the daily question-and-answer sessions in favor of written questions and responses since the dismissals of Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer and Steve Bannon from his inner circle. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave the AP an interview about education policy.

But there’s a far longer record of the Trump administration’s secrecy, despite Trump’s campaign vow to “drain the swamp” of Washington.

His administration has served notice that the executive branch could ignore some information requests from Congress with a few exceptions.

“Nonsense,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an outspoken advocate of open government. “Shutting down oversight requests doesn’t drain the swamp, Mr. President. It floods the swamp.”

Members of the administration have resisted being questioned. Some White House briefings were declared off-limits for video or audio. And in July, during the president’s second overseas trip, the administration insisted that a briefing by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin be off-camera. Trump also barred the U.S. media from his White House meeting with Russian officials, only to see photos of the Oval Office session surface in the Russian media.

The signs of struggle included the resignation in July of the government’s ethics chief, Walter Shaub, after an extraordinary public fight with Trump’s lawyers over potential conflicts of interest. Shaub, an Obama appointee leaving short of the end of his five-year term, had tried unsuccessfully to get Trump to fully divest from his business empire.

As with most new administrations, Trump’s Justice Department has not issued its own its official policy on complying with one of the cornerstones of open government, the federal Freedom of Information Act. Asked what the Trump administration is doing to foster openness in government, a White House spokeswoman did not respond.

“Trump and his closest aides appear to have little respect for the very processes of government, and therefore little appreciation of the public’s need to know of them as part of our democratic process,” said Daniel J. Metcalfe, the founding director of the Justice Department’s Office of Information and Privacy who teaches secrecy law at American University.

Trump’s core supporters seem to be OK with this, he said, “as if new degrees of federal government secrecy are actually better for the country.”

It’s not just the White House.

Proceedings of the House and Senate are televised live, as are many congressional hearings. But Senate leaders this year briefly tried to bar reporters from conducting televised hallway interviews without permission. And Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell opted to privately negotiate an ultimately unsuccessful bill to overhaul Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Closing the beginning of the bill-writing process is unusual, though when the original bill was passed, negotiators closed it at the end, to get a final deal.

The Obama administration in its final year spent a record $36.2 million on legal costs defending its refusal to turn over federal records under FOIA, an Associated Press analysis showed earlier this year. The Obama administration also set records for outright denial of access to files, refusing to quickly consider requests described as especially newsworthy, for example.

But Obama signed two executive orders and a set of memoranda on his first day in office that directed the government to revert toward openness. One directive reversed policy by President George W. Bush that made it easier for government agencies to deny Freedom of Information Act requests for records. Another effectively repealed a Bush executive order that allowed former presidents or their heirs to keep records secret by claiming executive privilege.

Part of the current administration’s resistance to openness may stem from Trump’s background running a family business.

“If you come out of the private company background and you didn’t have to report to anybody, you basically got to run your own shop and you can just fire people. That’s been Donald Trump’s life,” said Richard Painter, who served as George W. Bush’s White House ethics lawyer. “Then at age 70, suddenly he’s in a job where he’s accountable to other people; there’s a Constitution and a set of rules here.”

___

Follow Laurie Kellman on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APLaurieKellman.

Posted in Resources

New secrecy tactic: suing people who seek public records

Doc URL: http://elvisb.ap.org/News/Stories/CTCB-2017-Jun-19-000595/CTCB-2017-Jun-19-000595.docx

Slug: BC-US–Sunshine Year-Turning the Tables,ADV17
Headline: New secrecy tactic: suing people who seek public records
Summary: Government agencies are increasingly turning the tables on people who request public records with an aggressive new tactic: filing lawsuits against them to block or delay release of the information. The trend has alarmed freedom-of-information advocates. They say it’s another way for agencies to hide embarrassments and intimidate critics. The cases also can force requesters to pay their own legal fees even if they ultimately prevail.
Extended Headline: Government agencies are increasingly turning the tables on people who request public records, filing lawsuits that attempt to block or delay release of the information
Editors Note: Eds: Moving in advance for use on Sunday, Sept. 17, and thereafter. With BC-US–Sunshine Year-States of Denial. Photos, illustration. With AP Photos.; FOR RELEASE SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 2017, AT 3:02 A.M. EDT.
Urgency: Non Urgent
Byline: By RYAN J. FOLEY
Bytitle: Associated Press
Dateline: IOWA CITY, Iowa
Pub Eds note: Part of an ongoing examination of threats to First Amendment freedoms by The Associated Press, the American Society of News Editors and Associated Press Media Editors.

 

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — An Oregon parent wanted details about school employees getting paid to stay home. A retired educator sought data about student performance in Louisiana. And college journalists in Kentucky requested documents about the investigations of employees accused of sexual misconduct.

Instead, they got something else: sued by the agencies they had asked for public records.

Government bodies are increasingly turning the tables on citizens who seek public records that might be embarrassing or legally sensitive. Instead of granting or denying their requests, a growing number of school districts, municipalities and state agencies have filed lawsuits against people making the requests — taxpayers, government watchdogs and journalists who must then pursue the records in court at their own expense.

The lawsuits generally ask judges to rule that the records being sought do not have to be divulged. They name the requesters as defendants but do not seek damage awards. Still, the recent trend has alarmed freedom-of-information advocates, who say it’s becoming a new way for governments to hide information, delay disclosure and intimidate critics.

“This practice essentially says to a records requester, ‘File a request at your peril,'” said University of Kansas journalism professor Jonathan Peters, who wrote about the issue for the Columbia Journalism Review in 2015, before several more cases were filed. “These lawsuits are an absurd practice and noxious to open government.”

Government officials who have employed the tactic insist they are acting in good faith. They say it’s best to have courts determine whether records should be released when legal obligations are unclear — for instance, when the documents may be shielded by an exemption or privacy laws.

At least two recent cases have succeeded in blocking information while many others have only delayed the release.

State freedom-of-information laws generally allow requesters who believe they are wrongly denied records to file lawsuits seeking to force their release. If they succeed, government agencies can be ordered to pay their legal fees and court costs.

Suing the requesters flips the script: Even if agencies are ultimately required to make the records public, they typically will not have to pay the other side’s legal bills.

“You can lose even when you win,” said Mike Deshotels, an education watchdog who was sued by the Louisiana Department of Education after filing requests for school district enrollment data last year. “I’m stuck with my legal fees just for defending my right to try to get these records.”

The lawsuit argued that the data could not be released under state and federal privacy laws and initially asked the court to order Deshotels and another citizen requester to pay the department’s legal fees and court costs. The department released the data months later after a judge ruled it should be made public.

Deshotels, a 72-year-old retired teachers’ union official who authors the Louisiana Educator blog, had spent $3,000 fighting the lawsuit by then. He said the data ultimately helped show a widening achievement gap among the state’s poorest students, undercutting claims of progress by education reformers.

The lawsuits have been denounced by some courts and policymakers. A New Jersey judge in 2015 said they were the “antithesis” of open-records policies and dismissed a case filed by a township against a person who requested police department surveillance video footage.

In Michigan, the state House voted 108-0 earlier this year in favor of a bill that would make it illegal for agencies to sue public records requesters. The proposal came in response to a county’s lawsuit against a local newspaper that had sought the personnel files of two employees running for sheriff. A judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying the county had to approve or deny the request.

The documents, ultimately released days before the election, showed that one of the candidates had been disciplined for carrying on an affair while on-duty in 2011. That candidate lost.

The Michigan bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Klint Kesto, called the tactic “a backdoor channel to delay and put pressure on the requester” that circumvents the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

“Government shouldn’t file a lawsuit and go on offense. Either approve the request or deny it,” he said. “This shouldn’t be happening anywhere in the country.”

As his bill remains pending in a state Senate committee, Michigan State University filed a lawsuit May 1 against ESPN after the network requested police reports related to a sexual assault investigation involving football players. That and a number of other cases are currently unfolding.

In April, the Portland, Oregon, school district filed a lawsuit against parent Kim Sordyl, who is seeking records about employees on leave for alleged misconduct after the disclosure that one psychologist had been off for three years. Sordyl said she believes the information will expose costly missteps by district human resources officials and lawyers, and the district attorney has already ordered the records to be released.

“They are going to great lengths to protect themselves and their own mismanagement. This is retaliation,” said Sordyl, who has hired an attorney. “Most people would give up.”

A district spokesman said the lawsuit, which also names a journalist who requested similar information, amounts to an appeal “in an area of public records law that we believe lacks clarity.”

“When this information is released prematurely, the district’s position is that the employees’ right to due process is jeopardized,” spokesman Dave Northfield said.

The University of Kentucky prevailed in January when a judge blocked the release of records sought by its student newspaper detailing the investigation of a professor who resigned after being accused of groping students.

The judge agreed with the university that the records would violate the privacy rights of students who were victims even if their names were redacted.

While that ruling is on appeal, Western Kentucky University filed a similar lawsuit against its paper, the College Heights Herald, which sought records related to allegations of sexual harassment and assault involving employees. Several other state universities released similar documents to the newspaper, and the state attorney general has ruled that they are public records.

“It’s not a good feeling knowing that we are being sued,” said Herald editor-in-chief Andrew Henderson, whose publication has been raising money to pay legal fees. “I just hope that something beneficial comes out of all of this for everyone involved.”

___

Follow Ryan J. Foley on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rjfoley.

Posted in Resources

Across US, lawmakers chip away at public’s access to records

Doc URL: http://elvisb.ap.org/News/Stories/CTCB-2017-Jun-28-000392/CTCB-2017-Jun-28-000392.docx

Slug: BC-US–Sunshine Year-States of Denial, ADV17
Headline: Across US, lawmakers chip away at public’s access to records
Summary: State lawmakers across the country introduced dozens of bills this year that would close or limit public access to a wide range of government records, information and meetings. That’s according to a nationwide review by The Associated Press. Freedom-of-information advocates say they are alarmed by the trend toward government secrecy. Most of those proposals did not become law, but advocates are bracing for more fights next year.
Extended Headline: State lawmakers introduce dozens of bills to close or limit public access to government records
Editors Note: (Eds: Moving in advance for use on Sunday, Sept. 17, and thereafter. With BC-US–Sunshine Year-Turning the Tables and BC-US–Sunshine Year–Washington. Photos, illustration. With AP Photos. ); FOR RELEASE SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 2017, AT 3:01 A.M. EDT.
Urgency: Non Urgent
Byline: By ANDREW DeMILLO and RYAN J. FOLEY
Bytitle: Associated Press
Dateline: LITTLE ROCK, Ark.
Pub Eds note: Part of an ongoing examination of threats to First Amendment freedoms by The Associated Press, the American Society of News Editors and Associated Press Media Editors.

 

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — In February, Arkansas lawmakers marked the 50-year anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act with a resolution calling it “a shining example of open government” that had ensured access to vital public records for generations.

They spent the following weeks debating and, in many cases approving, new exemptions to the law in what critics called an unprecedented attack on the public’s right to know.

When they were finished, universities could keep secret all information related to their police forces, including their size and the names and salaries of officers. Public schools could shield a host of facts related to security, including the identities of teachers carrying concealed weapons and emergency response plans. And state Capitol police could withhold anything they believed could be “detrimental to public safety” if made public.

While hailed by lawmakers as commonsense steps to thwart would-be terrorists or mass shooters, the new laws left grandmother Annie Bryant worried that she and other parents could now be kept in the dark about how schools protect kids.

“I don’t want to be overly aggressive to the point that we block out avenues and end up robbing parents, robbing students of information about their safety,” said Bryant, who lives in Pine Bluff and spoke out against the school security secrecy during a legislative hearing.

Lawmakers across the country introduced and debated dozens of bills during this year’s legislative sessions that would close or limit public access to a wide range of government records and meetings, according to a review by The Associated Press and numerous state press associations.

Most of those proposals did not become law, but freedom-of-information advocates in some states said they were struck by the number of bills they believed would harm the public interest, and they are bracing for more fights next year.

Nebraska lawmakers debated whether to keep secret the identity of the suppliers of lethal-injection drugs used in executions. The California Legislature rushed through a measure that shielded from the public the emergency action plans required for potentially unsafe dams — an idea that arose after nearly 200,000 people were forced to evacuate following a spillway failure at the state’s second-largest reservoir. Texas again considered a plan that would effectively shut down its public records law to any requesters who live outside the nation’s second most populous state.

___

PUSHING BACK AGAINST OPENNESS

In some cases, the bills hit resistance only after reporters caught on and began writing about them.

In Iowa, the House passed a bill to shield the audio of many 911 calls by declaring them confidential “medical records” after the AP used the open-records law to expose a series of gun-related accidents involving minors in one rural county. The plan died in the Senate after it was detailed in news reports, and media and civil rights groups raised objections.

Days later, the potential impact of the bill became clear when a beloved state celebrity, farmer Chris Soules of “The Bachelor” fame, was charged with leaving the scene of a deadly accident. A 911 call that would have remained confidential under the bill painted a far more sympathetic picture of Soules’ actions, showing he immediately reported the crash and sought aid for the 66-year-old victim.

Iowa lawmakers succeeded in passing another anti-transparency bill, approving unprecedented secrecy for the state’s $1 billion gambling industry by closing access to the detailed annual financial statements of the state’s 19 licensed casinos. Those records had been public for decades. The change came in response to lobbying from casinos, which had objected to a request from an out-of-state competitor for the records by claiming they contained proprietary information.

Florida has some of the nation’s strongest open-records and open-meetings laws, but that did not stop lawmakers from trying to tinker with them. This year, they passed 19 new exemptions to the Sunshine Law, the second most in at least two decades. The details of how public universities investigate cyberattacks and prepare for emergencies are now confidential. The identities of people who witness murders, use medical marijuana or get injured or killed at workplaces must also be withheld.

“I think the sheer number of new exemptions that were created was a bit alarming. It was almost a record. That’s never good,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, who has tracked transparency legislation in Florida since the 1990s.

One of the worst for the public’s right to know, Petersen said, is a bill requiring records of criminal charges that result in acquittal or dismissal to be automatically sealed. She asked Gov. Rick Scott to veto the measure, arguing it would harm public safety by depriving employers of relevant information about onetime suspects who avoided convictions for any number of reasons. Scott ended up signing the bill, which supporters say will protect the wrongly accused from employment and reputational repercussions.

Still, many other bills that concerned Petersen were defeated, including measures that would have kept secret the names of applicants for top university jobs and allowed members of government boards to have more private meetings.

___

PUBLIC SAFETY CONCERNS

Lawmakers supporting the limits say other concerns such as security, privacy and business interests can outweigh the public’s right to information in specific cases.

They say they proposed the changes after hearing complaints about information sought by specific requesters and general concerns about the cost and time of fulfilling the requests. Criticism of journalists seeking the records or citizens filing repeat requests sometimes came up in debate.

Kansas lawmakers proposed a bill that would keep the state database of fired police officers secret after Wichita television station KWCH exposed how some cities were hiring officers with checkered pasts, including a chief facing a federal investigation after being fired three times. The bill, which was backed by the state’s law enforcement training agency, stalled after the station’s news director warned lawmakers it would make government “less open, less transparent” around the critical issues of police misconduct and public trust.

In Arkansas, a request for seemingly innocuous information became the catalyst for the sweeping bill passed earlier this year that exempts all “records or other information” held by universities that, if released, could potentially harm public safety.

A photographer filed a request in 2015 for the names of officers assigned to work a security detail for the upcoming Mississippi State-Arkansas football game. The woman, who was shooting the game for AP, wanted to learn whether she might cross paths with an officer she had accused of rape.

University of Arkansas officials were unaware of the motive behind the request and were focused on preventing a terrorist attack at the stadium. The new law they backed specifically shields information related to the number of security personnel on campuses, any personal information about them, and all of their emergency plans, procedures and studies.

The bill also included a similar exemption for public schools. The sponsor, Republican Sen. Gary Stubblefield, said he pushed for that language after a district armed some of its teachers and staff as volunteer security guards, saying he wanted to keep their identities secret for safety reasons.

“I’m not against FOI. I believe strongly in transparency, I really do, but common sense just tells you there are some things that you cannot release especially in the day in which we live,” Stubblefield said. “Because there are actually people out there who are just looking for something, an edge where they can get in and do some damage. And I just don’t think we ought to give it to them.”

___

GOING TOO FAR?

Supporters of the exemption for the Arkansas Capitol Police said it was needed because the news media had written in 1998 about secret plans to allow former Gov. Mike Huckabee to escape his office by climbing a ladder into an abandoned elevator shaft.

The disclosure caused the state to delay and modify the escape route, which was completed in 2001 and later shown to reporters by the governor’s staff. The new law gives the agency wide authority to keep secret any records related to security at the Capitol and governor’s mansion.

By the end of the session, some lawmakers believed the proposed changes were going too far.

The Legislature voted to create a new task force to study the exemptions, including whether any should be deleted or added. The House voted 33-32 to block legislation that would allow the government to declare a public records request “unduly burdensome” and give 15 business days to comply instead of the current three. A measure that would have allowed universities to keep secret wide categories of records related to potential legal action failed.

Tom Larimer, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, said lawmakers did more damage to freedom of information than in any other session since 2004.

“We’ve always had a certain number of legislators who have had no use for the Freedom of Information Act and have no serious concerns about transparency in government,” he said. “But it just seemed like there were more of them this time, and they were more willing to side with those who are perpetually on the side of weakening the FOI.”

___

Foley reported from Iowa City, Iowa.

___

Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ademillo and Ryan J. Foley at https://twitter.com/rjfoley.

Posted in Resources

New Reporting Package (Sunshine Week 2017 extension)

As part of continuing examination of threats to First Amendment freedoms and an extension of Sunshine Week 2017, The Associated Press, the American Society of News Editors and the Associated Press Media Editors have produced a package of stories focused on government attempts to promote secrecy or hinder access to information.

The centerpiece is an online transparency tool that can be accessed by AP customers. The news organizations worked with freedom of information experts to create the tool, which tracks state legislative attempts to alter the flow of public information. This includes bills that seek to make certain information off-limits to the public or harder to access.

They identified more than 150 such bills that were introduced in the 2017 legislative session alone. Those bills have been collected in an online tool to be found here: https://sunshine.ap.org

The link is accessible to anyone with an AP member account. Members who have not signed up for other AP services can create an account through APImages. After registering, the newly created account credentials can be used to access the Sunshine Hub.

A webinar to explain how the hub works can be found here. No password is required to access the recording here.

The transparency hub provides detailed information about each bill dealing with government transparency and has a number of features reporters and editors will find useful. Reporters will be able to follow the progress of individual bills, sort bills by topic, post comments and suggest legislation to add.

The Sunshine Hub is being released in testing mode for this story package. It will be updated and promoted anew once the 2018 legislative sessions get underway. For that effort, the AP’s data team wants users to provide feedback on how to make the site better and what features should be added or altered. Send feedback to datateam@ap.org.

The following stories and their accompanying images, as well as illustrations by Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Jack Ohman of The Sacramento Bee, will be posted Sunday, Sept. 17.

For information about the overall project, contact Tom Verdin, editor of the AP’s state government team, at taverdin@ap.org.

___

SUNSHINE YEAR-STATES OF DENIAL
LITTLE ROCK,  Ark. _ In February, Arkansas lawmakers marked the 50-year anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act with a resolution calling it “a shining example of open government” that had given state residents access to vital public records for generations. They spent the following weeks debating and, in many cases approving, new exemptions to the law in what critics called an unprecedented attack on the public’s right-to-know. Across the country, state lawmakers this year introduced dozens of bills that attempted to chip away at the public’s right-to-know by claiming that public safety, privacy or business interests outweigh transparency. The trend troubles First Amendment advocates who say the public’s ability to keep a check on the government is under assault. By Andrew DeMillo and Ryan J. Foley. Photos. 1,500 words. Photos, illustration.
With:
_ Sunshine Hub distribution.

SUNSHINE YEAR-TURNING THE TABLES
An Oregon parent wanted details about school employees getting paid to stay home. A retired educator was seeking data on Louisiana student performance. And college journalists in Kentucky requested documents about sexual misconduct investigations of employees. Instead, all three got something else: Sued by the agencies they had asked for public records. Government bodies are increasingly turning the tables on citizens who use state laws to seek access to legally sensitive or embarrassing public records. Instead of granting or denying their requests, a growing number of districts, municipalities and state agencies in recent years have instead filed lawsuits against the requesters, forcing taxpayers, watchdogs and journalists to pursue the records in court at their own expense. The trend has alarmed freedom of information advocates, who say it’s becoming a new way for governments to hide information and intimidate critics. By Ryan J. Foley. 1,000 words. Photos, illustration.

SUNSHINE YEAR-WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON _ The Trump administration attempted to draw curtains around daily White House briefings. It has prevented public scrutiny of White House visitor logs. And in an attempt to keep government actions secret, it has vigorously pursued whistleblowers. In Congress, Republican leaders negotiated their ultimately unsuccessful health care overhaul in secret. A dark shadow is encroaching on open government in Washington these days, making it harder to hold federal officials accountable for their actions. By Laurie Kellman. 900 words. Photos, illustration.
Posted in Resources

Openness, transparency and frankly, to be honest

Bletner, Rhonda

By Rhonda Bletner
Editor
The Mountain Press (Sevierville, Tennessee)

In recognition of Sunshine Week, a week that emphasizes the importance of open government, The Mountain Press shared some guest opinions to demonstrate our support. Those guest opinions illustrate the significance of government transparency, and it’s equally valuable here in Sevier County. So is the role the newspaper has in maintaining a democratic government.

Sunshine Week is also a reminder that citizens’ participation and rights are also critical to a democracy. Citizens participate, of course by voting, but also by becoming informed, debating issues, and attending community or civic meetings.

Community members are not often seen at local government meetings unless the meeting directly affects them, but they do participate if they read the newspaper’s reports of those meetings and are thereby informed.

Journalists are tasked with identifying issues that concern the local population and gathering information by interviewing officials or other appropriate parties involved in the issue, and by also gathering relevant data to write articles that inform the public.

That information gathering works best when governments and newspapers mutually respect and adhere to the best practices of open government.

In April 2010 The U.S. Department of Justice released its ‘Plan for Open Government” and put forth its ongoing efforts to increase transparency in government.

The department’s explanation of the plan stated, “The Department of Justice has long had a special responsibility for open government because of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Freedom of Information Act is a key tool for transparency in government. It is often through the FOIA that the public learns what the government is doing and holds the government accountable for its decisions and actions.”

This month the U.S. Department of Justice issued new policy direction for compliance to FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act, even assessing fees for unmet deadlines.

All 50 states have enacted open records laws similar to the FOIA. In Tennessee, it’s called the “Tennessee Open Records Act.” Public records and open meetings help provide accountability by elected and appointed officials. Of course, it’s a given that those officials are responsible for their actions because they are in office in service to the people.

The more accountable officeholders are, the more mindful they are of their relationship to “the people,” the more transparency they can achieve.

What’s the point?

The point is journalists understand our rights as citizens to information. Journalists work at obtaining and sharing information every day. It’s a service and a responsibility to the community, and it’s not always easy.

Journalists need to be transparent, too; and Sunshine Week reminds us of that responsibility.

Too often we report stories with quotes, or statements, made by elected and private individuals, that were emailed to us. Those statements are very likely accurate; however, they represent a “prepared” statement. They aren’t remarks we gathered while interviewing someone first person. If we’re transparent, our readers should know we didn’t actually speak with the source.

Sometimes we receive remarks attributed to our desired source, but that are actually written by a public relations representative. Our readers should know that and it makes us more accountable to our audience.

The statement is likely a good, representative statement, but it is not a candid statement.

In an effort to be transparent, because if we expect transparency from our officials, we in turn should be transparent and responsible to our readers, the citizens those officials represent.

We intend to express that in our writing. If we obtain a quote from an email or through a press release (a submitted article) we will state that in our report so our readers understand the quote material was from a prepared statement.

We want to be as transparent and open as we expect our government to be.

Posted in Resources

Federal grant funding obscures how government is funded, diffuses accountability

DaveDaley-croppedBy DAVE DALEY

For close to a year now, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute has been wrestling with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to obtain a report on what steps, if any, HUD took to stop misuse of more than $2 million in taxpayer funds by a Wisconsin tribe.

The issue seemed simple enough: A routine audit found irregularities in how the St. Croix Chippewa tribe in northwestern Wisconsin used $2.3 million in 2015 in HUD grants meant to help the poorest in the tribe find decent housing. The 2015 audit of the tribe found that:

  • More than $776,000 in back rent was owed the tribe and probably never would be collected.
  • The tribe’s Housing Authority awarded $308,000 to contractors without following rules on how vendors are evaluated and selected.
  • 80 percent of the authority’s tenant case files did not have the required income recertification information needed for a tenant to qualify for rent-subsidized housing.

The audit also uncovered a mystery — $85,000 in loans, which the auditor said were from the “HCRI loan program,” were made by Housing Authority officials to themselves. HUD has no such loan fund, however. HCRI is a state program — the Housing Cost Reduction Initiative. But, a state official said the last HCRI grant to the St. Croix Chippewa was in 1992.

The same findings had been made in 2013 and 2014, apparently with no effort to follow up by HUD, until they were reported in a WPRI story. Then HUD assigned a team to review the audit and produced a report that, presumably, outlined what changes HUD ordered to correct the problems.

WPRI filed a request in May for the report under the Freedom of Information Act, the federal law that requires federal agencies to make records available “promptly.” That was nine months ago. WPRI is still waiting.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said it’s par for the course.

“Federal agencies have over time adopted a culture of contempt for the public’s right to know,” he said. “They (federal agencies) don’t make handling records requests a priority, they don’t do it well and nobody holds them accountable.”

It’s especially difficult for the public, journalists and even politicians to track the hundreds of billions of dollars in federal grants distributed to states, local governments and private entities. Those grants account for a huge portion of federal spending — $628 billion in all — and one-third of Wisconsin’s budget, paying for everything from Medicaid to schools to roads.

But try to follow the money and you can find yourself in the back alleys of government — alone and in the dark. And that’s by design, some say.

The grants-in-aid system “is just a political ploy to reduce responsibility for people who are blowing taxpayer money,” said Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute and editor of DownsizingGovernment.Org. “The entire purpose is political — to give politicians credit for spending and reduce political responsibility and give politicians at all three levels of government more talking points. It actually reduces responsibility.”

David French, a writer at the National Review, agrees.

“Congress has intentionally abdicated authority” to the Washington bureaucracy, he wrote recently. “We like to think of our nation’s public servants as virtuously toiling away for the public good, and many of them do. Many, however, do not, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to hold them accountable.”

It’s a familiar story to anyone who tries to track federal grants-in-aid spending, which is controlled not by elected officials who are supposed to be responsive to voters, but by a large faceless and mostly unaccountable bureaucracy.

“Some of the worst, most inefficient bureaucracies I’ve heard about over the years include HUD and the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” said Edwards. “Personally, I find it sickening that these bureaucracies aren’t responsive to the citizens and journalists.”

Dave Daley is a reporter for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute’s Project for 21st Century Federalism (wpri.org). He was a statehouse and federal courts reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Posted in Resources

PIO Censorship in the Era of Trump

Kathryn FoxhallBy Kathryn Foxhall
SPJ’s FOI Committee

President Trump has already labeled major press outlets the “fake news media” and the “enemy of the people.” His administration has blocked major news outlets from a briefing because it didn’t like what they published.

With that in mind, the public should understand “censorship by PIO” at the federal level: For years, in many federal agencies, staff members have been prohibited from communicating with any journalist without notifying the authorities, usually the public information officers. And they often are unable to talk without PIO guards actively monitoring them.

Now, conversations will be approved or blocked by people appointed by the Trump Administration, some of them political operatives.

The information about the “administrative state” that impacts our lives constantly is under these controls. They also cover much of the data through which we understand our world and our lives.

In January, according to the Washington Post: “Trump called the government’s job numbers ‘phony.’ What happens now that he is in charge of them?”

Some of us may feel less comfortable with Trump people controlling this information flow. But actually a surge in these controls has been building in the federal government and through the U.S. culture for two decades or more.

In many entities, public and private, federal, state, and local those in power decree that no one will talk to journalists without notifying the PIO. Congressional offices even have the restrictions.

They are convenient for bosses. Under that oversight staff people are unlikely to talk about all the stuff that’s always there, outside of the official story.

Beyond that, PIOs often monitor the conversations and tell staff people what they may or may not discuss. Frequently agencies and offices delay contacts or block them altogether. An article on the Association of Health Care Journalists website, advising journalists about dealing with the Department of Health and Human Services, says, “Reporters rarely get to interview administration officials…”

Remember, those HHS people journalists can’t talk to are at the hub of information flow on what works and doesn’t with Obamacare, Medicare, and Medicaid. Or they know whether there are other perspectives on the numbers the agency publishes. Not to speak of the understanding about food and drugs, infectious disease, and medical and health policy research. Many of them could quickly stun us with the education they could give, if they were not gagged.

Another fact that gives pause is these restraints are just for journalists. There are no special rules or offices to stop staff people from having fluid communication with lobbyists, special interest groups, contractors, people with a lot of money, etc.

Fifty-three journalism and open government groups wrote to President Obama asking him to lift the mandate that PIOs be notified of contacts and the related restrictions in federal agencies. We met with people in the White House in 2015 to leave that message for the President. A year ago we pleaded in an editorial that Obama not leave these constraints in place, given the authoritarian rhetoric on the campaign trail and the fact no one can know how these controls will be used in one year or 20 years.

We wonder how former Obama officials feel now about their medications, given that FDA officials can’t talk without Trump controls.

But is it ever even rational to just believe staff people who are under such coercion?

Some journalists –- given our proclivity for believing we always get the story — profess to not be concerned about the PIO controls, saying people on the inside will leak. But do we have any sense of how often that happens? Do we have a 75-percent perspective on an entire agency, or a 2-percent? Nobody leaked when EPA staff people knew that kids in Flint were drinking lead in water or when CDC had sloppy practices in handling bad bugs.

Meantime, we have much more to worry about than just the gagged feds. In surveys sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, over half of political and general assignment reporters around the country said their interviews must be approved at least most of the time. Seventy-eight percent said the public is not getting the information it needs because of barriers imposed on reporting and 73 percent said the controls are getting tighter.

Education and science reporters cited similar controls.

Perhaps most chillingly, 56 percent of police reporters said they can never or rarely interview police officers without involving a PIO.

Almost 80 percent of police PIOs said they felt it was necessary to supervise or otherwise monitor interviews with police officers. Asked why, some PIOs said things like: “To ensure that the interviews stay within the parameters that we want.”

However, people in power characterize it, censorship is a moral monstrosity. It leaves people on the inside to control information with their own ideas and motivations. It debilitates all of us with a lack of understanding or, just as bad, skewed information. It takes away trust in our systems. It puts democracy itself in question.

Understandably in shock at President Trump’s attacks on the press, some feel these PIO controls are not a primary priority. Actually, this era makes it clearer than ever why we don’t need to leave these networks of controls to people in power.


Kathryn Foxhall, currently a freelance reporter, has written on health and health policy in Washington, D.C., for over 40 years, including 14 years as editor of the newspaper of the American Public Health Association. Email her at kfoxhall@verizon.net.

Posted in Resources

Photo: In Texas, government denials of record requests have soared

(For a full-size photograph, click the thumbnail below.)

ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, MARCH 12, 2017 AND THEREAFTER-FILE - In this May 25, 2016 file photo, Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announces Texas' lawsuit to challenge President Obama's transgender bathroom order during a news conference in Austin, Texas. In Texas, reporters seeking public documents and data are increasingly running into a road block: the state attorney general's office. The agency is the arbiter of the state's open records laws, yet in recent years has been flooded with requests from governments at all levels seeking to withhold information. The agency almost always allows them to do so. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, MARCH 12, 2017 AND THEREAFTER-FILE – In this May 25, 2016 file photo, Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announces Texas’ lawsuit to challenge President Obama’s transgender bathroom order during a news conference in Austin, Texas. In Texas, reporters seeking public documents and data are increasingly running into a road block: the state attorney general’s office. The agency is the arbiter of the state’s open records laws, yet in recent years has been flooded with requests from governments at all levels seeking to withhold information. The agency almost always allows them to do so. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Posted in Toolkit

Photos: Trump’s actions raise fears about access to government data

(For full-size photographs, click the thumbnails below.)

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, MARCH 13, 2017 AND THEREAFTER-Dr. Garen Wintemute an emergency room physician at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center, poses for a photo at the hospital in Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday, March 9, 2017. Wintemute, who has researched gun violence and firearms industry, worked with colleagues to download public records from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and other federal agencies after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. He and others feared the information might disappear from federal websites. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, MARCH 13, 2017 AND THEREAFTER-Dr. Garen Wintemute an emergency room physician at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center, poses for a photo at the hospital in Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday, March 9, 2017. Wintemute, who has researched gun violence and firearms industry, worked with colleagues to download public records from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and other federal agencies after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. He and others feared the information might disappear from federal websites. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, MARCH 13, 2017 AND THEREAFTER-Dr. Garen Wintemute, an emergency room physician at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center, shows the website of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, on a computer in the hospital in Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday, March 9, 2017. On the day President Donald Trump was inaugurated, Wintemute got a call from a colleague, who reported that the White House had removed a climate change page from its website. Fearing that federal data on gun violence might soon similarly vanish under a president with close ties to the National Rifle Association, Wintemute called together his partners at the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program. He then ticked off the records he wanted to archive. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, MARCH 13, 2017 AND THEREAFTER-Dr. Garen Wintemute, an emergency room physician at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center, shows the website of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, on a computer in the hospital in Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday, March 9, 2017. On the day President Donald Trump was inaugurated, Wintemute got a call from a colleague, who reported that the White House had removed a climate change page from its website. Fearing that federal data on gun violence might soon similarly vanish under a president with close ties to the National Rifle Association, Wintemute called together his partners at the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program. He then ticked off the records he wanted to archive. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Posted in Toolkit

Why Freedom of Information Faces Problems, and How Experts Say Those Can Be Solved

Cuillier mug newton mugBy David Cuillier and Eric Newton

People must be able to get facts from their government to make smart decisions and hold public officials accountable. Politicians from both parties agreed on this long ago when they first passed federal, state and local open government laws.

But the things people build — be they bridges, roads or freedom of information laws — wear out without regular maintenance. That’s why Sunshine Week exists, to remind us that it takes effort to keep freedom working. “The natural progress of things,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.”

Jefferson, our third president and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, still sounds right more than two centuries later. A timely piece of evidence is “Forecasting Freedom of Information,” a study of more than 300 of those who seek (or provide) public records, released Sunday, March 12, by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Half of those surveyed said that access to public records has gotten worse during the past four years, and nearly 9 of 10 predicted that under our new national leader access will get even worse.

The previous presidential administration, while saying it would be more open, was considered by many freedom of information experts to be too secretive. The new presidential administration has started out by questioning core elements of the machinery of liberty — the courts, the media, and freedom of information itself.

“What I hear from reporters in Washington and my students is that exemptions are being used in way too many cases and delays are still very long,” said Leonard Downie, former Washington Post executive editor and current Weil Family Professor of Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “I hope the door doesn’t get shut tighter.”

Rising denials are particularly acute at the local level, where daily newspapers have cut some 20,000 journalists in the past 10 years. More than half of those surveyed — 56 percent — predicted local and state information will be harder to get in the next four years.

What is going wrong? Survey subjects reported long delays, documents excessively censored, costly copy fees, out of date technology and, too often, public officials not knowing about or caring to follow their own freedom of information laws.

How can it be fixed? Expert advice ranged from use of digital tools that make it easier to request records to tougher laws that penalize violators. One of the ideas is aimed directly at you — how to expand Sunshine Week and other efforts to show the value of open government.

Why should you care? Because no matter who you are and what you believe, you have the same right as everyone else to ask for and get public information. Whether you seek government efficiency or just the location of your properly line, you should have access to all the information the law allows.

This Sunshine Week, take a minute to learn more. The open records laws are listed by the Reporter’s Committeee for Freedom of the Press. State groups are listed at the National Freedom of Information Coalition. Visit the Sunshine Week web site. Want to file a records request? Try Muckrock. Take a minute to thank the  American Society of News Editors and many other groups (from librarians to good government organizations) that make Sunshine Week possible.

Each spring Sunshine Week honors the March 16 birthday of James Madison, our fourth president, called “father of the Constitution” for his key role in writing and promoting the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. “I believe,” Madison wrote, “there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations.”

What our founders are saying seems clear: We must watch over freedom if we wish to keep it. The same idea applies to open government. Keeping freedom fresh is up to you, your friends and your neighbors. Let’s face facts: Our right to vote isn’t worth much if we don’t know what’s really going on.

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David Cuillier of the University of Arizona School of Journalism wrote “Forecasting Freedom of Information”; Eric Newton of Arizona State University was consulting editor.

Posted in Toolkit

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