People in and out of the news business use state and federal Freedom of Information laws constantly to find out what’s happening in their communities and to hold public officials accountable.
Here are some recent examples of how journalists used public records to shed new light on government actions and community issues.
If you have more examples, please tell us in the comment section below (with a link to the story), or send them to us at email@example.com.
1,700 school bus accidents — 5 a day. Those numbers may be shocking to parents even as they are reassuring to operators of the 50 companies that provide school bus service in New York. They were revealed to readers of DNAinfo, which used the state’s Freedom of Information Law to compile the data. One operator told DNAinfo that the city has “the safest school bus record in the nation.” Safety advocates said the data points to the need for more safety features on the buses. Story
As you might imagine, the folks in Starbucks’ home town love their coffee shops, so the Seattle Times pulled, then analyzed six years of public health inspection records of the 36 local coffee shop chains to see if they were earning their customers’ loyalty by providing safe, healthy places to drink and eat. Incidentally, Starbucks, with 285 King County locations, had the second-best health rating. Story
Using Kentucky’s Open Records Act, the Lexington Herald-Leader discovered that the chief executive of two state agencies that lend money to college students had spent more than $50,000 on out-of-state trips, often exceeding the daily per diem limits and treating guests to $100-plus a person meals. Story
St. Louis Post Dispatch reporters filed public records requests to find out more about the environmental cleanup of a long-abandoned coke plant designed to make way for a new business park. The request generated 11,000 pages of records, which the reporters reviewed on site, rather than getting copies and likely prompting an environmental cleanup in the newsroom. The records search showed the $6.7 million project estimate was much too low, which officials knew at the time; that there was no public bidding; and that the original polluters paid only a fraction of the cleanup cost. Story
Using data gathered from a FOIA request, the Asbury Park Press reported that the federal government paid its civilian work force $105 billion in salaries in 2011 — then gave them another $439 million in bonuses. The database has been posted online. Story
The Ann Arbor News used the state’s FOIA to track the wages of police and firefighters, discovering that they often earn far more than their base salaries. One police officer collected $126,247 — including $39,327 in overtime, $20,000 in paid time off and sick pay and $2,134 in various allowances. An assistant fire chief who retired in mid-November took home $75,797 in regular pay, $17,000 in paid time off and sick pay, $8,309 in allowances, $10,325 in overtime and cased in comp time, and $101,463 in severance. Story
The Pocono Record spent a year gathering and analyzing the pay records of 12,000 area government employees to present readers a series it entitled “The Truth About Public Pay.” Among the findings: More than twice as many men as women earn over $100,000 a year and the median salary for men was 11% higher. Even jobs traditionally dominated by women, like teaching, paid men more. Story
Freedom of Information requests filed by the Boston Globe uncovered investigative reports critical of emergency room procedures at three area hospitals that resulted in patients being turned away, including one who died en route to another hospital. Story
A Newark Star Ledger analysis of New Jersey state contracts for legal work showed there had been no decline in patronage under the administration of Gov. Chris Christie, just that the winners of those service contracts had shifted. Story
How One School District Dumped on Another — Literally
Using both the federal Freedom of Information Act and California’s Brown Act, the Palm Springs Desert Sun tracked the dumping of hazardous wastes near an elementary school on an Indian reservation by a firm contracting with the Los Angeles School District. Story
The Los Angeles Times used the California public records act to access coroners’ files in four adjacent counties, finding 3,733 deaths involving prescription medicines in the last five years, most as a result of overdoses. The review found that in 47% of the cases, the prescribed medicine was the sole cause or a contributing factor in the deaths. written by a physician assistant or a nurse practitioner, with the doctors authorization. Story
Three Connecticut newspapers, the New Haven Register, The Middletown Press and The Torrington Register Citizen filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the contracts of all school superintendents in the state, with the goal of building a searchable database for parents and other interested citizens. The newspapers also reported on which of the school districts quickly complied and those that took their time, in one case up to 28 business days. Story
In a project headlined Capitol Assets, The Washington Post reviewed the financial disclosure forms of all 535 members of Congress to show not just who has how much, but also how they manage their money and whether their legislative actions bring any personal benefit. Local public records searches helped identify 73 lawmakers who pushed legislation that could benefit businesses or industries in which they or a family member was invested or involved. Story
Financial disclosure records obtained by Bloomberg News through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed conflicts of interest of some of the Federal Reserve regional bank presidents, including one who invested close to $300,000 in an index fund 15% as the result of a Federal Reserve action taken two weeks after the investment. Story