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Unlocking government


  • pg 1
									Document-Driven Newsrooms
Unlocking government
Native American Journalists Association
Tulsa, Oklahoma
Aug. 10, 2006
Society of Professional Journalists/
Bloomberg National Training
David Cuillier, University of Arizona
Today’s Training
Part I. The stories
 Stories powered by records
 Creating a document-driven newsroom
 Small-group discussion & story idea

Part II. The method
 State public records laws
 Access strategy: Dealing with “no”
 FOIA and emerging issues
 Resources
Your Needs
 What challenges have you encountered in
  getting documents from public officials?
 Feel free to speak up with questions and
  ideas specific to your coverage area.
 If you want a copy of this PowerPoint
  presentation, put your email on the sheet I’ll
  pass around and I’ll email it to you Friday.
Part I: The Stories
The Power of Access
 At least a third of news stories are
  based in part on open records,
  meetings or court proceedings (SPJ
  2001 study of 3,192 stories)
 Documents help win awards and beat
  competition on deadline
 Documents help change the world
The Boston Globe
Data: Inventory of
Bridges from the
Federal Highway
Findings: The Globe
found that the rate of
problem bridges - with
structural defects or
with design flaws that
make them too narrow,
poorly aligned with
roadways or unable to
carry larger vehicles - is
the third worst in the
Atlanta Journal-
Data: Driving and criminal
records obtained under
Georgia open records laws.
Findings: Seventy-two
percent of the drivers had a
serious violation on his or
her personal or
professional driving record,
ranging from excessive
speed to DUI.
 In the past seven years,
622 taxicab drivers have
had their licenses
 Also, 63 taxicab drivers
have criminal records in
Georgia, including 10 who
had spent time in prison.
The charges included
armed robbery, child
molestation and
Drugs in the Ranks                                                   WTHR-TV
     Running hoses, operating heavy apparatus and maneuvering
through the fog of smoke, firefighters are the workers we count      Data: City fire department
on to stay focused in a crisis.
    “In no other occupation in public safety do people come in
                                                                     disciplinary and drug test
contact and try to either save a life or make a life better for      records.
someone,” said Chief James Greeson of the Indianapolis Fire
Department.                                                          Findings: Over the past
    But Eyewitness News found troubling records revealing the        seven years, two dozen
use of illicit drugs by IFD firefighters and other local emergency
workers.                                                             firefighters had failed drug
    Since IFD began random drug testing seven years ago, the         tests. The city refused to
department has seen 24 failed tests. While the clear majority of     disclose other disciplinary
IFD’s 700 employees have never been disciplined for substance
abuse, it’s difficult to judge the full scope of the problem since
firefighters are allowed to voluntarily seek help for substance
abuse and thereby keep their problems out of the public record.
    Complicating matters, officials at IFD refuse to turn over all
but the last two years of related disciplinary files. We did
receive records for four firefighters who tested positive for
illegal street drugs in the last year and a half.
Katrina: A Disaster Unfolds                      NBC Nightly News
  WASHINGTON - Some 200 New Orleans              Data: FEMA records.
school buses sit underwater in a parking lot,
unused. That's enough to have evacuated at       Findings: Ongoing deadline
least 13,000 people. Why weren’t those buses     reporting uncovered poor
sent street by street to pick up people before   emergency planning and
the storm?                                       inadequate response to
  A draft emergency plan, prepared by the        Hurricane Katrina.
Federal Emergency Management Agency and           The coverage, based
obtained by NBC News, calls for "400 buses       heavily on public
to ... evacuate victims." Yet those 200 buses    documents, won the
were left in Katrina's path.                     national SPJ 2005 award for
  "That's a real tragedy that these resources    deadline broadcast
weren't employed," said Greg Shaw, a             reporting.
disaster management expert at George
Washington University," because it would
have been good to get those people out of the
                                                 Aug. 7, 2006
                                                 News From Indian

Report shows broad range of troubles at Navajo
Nation Head Start program
  WASHINGTON – Navajo Nation officials are scrambling to fix broken
playground equipment, heaters and a host of problems that led the federal
government to revoke funding for the tribe’s $9.2 million-a-year Head
Start program earlier this spring.
   Navajo and Head Start officials have said the funds were pulled because
the program’s operators failed to perform background checks on hundreds
of current or former employees from 2001 to 2005. Partial reviews for 612
employees done after 2005 found 106 with a criminal record – 51 of whom
had offenses including first-degree murder, child abuse, domestic abuse
and driving while intoxicated.
  A report by officials with the Administration for Children and Families
obtained as part of a Freedom of Information Act request by
The Associated Press, shows that the failed background checks were only
part of the program’s problems…
                                                    July 10, 2006
                                                    News From Indian

E-mails detail Republican’s donation requests to
lobbyists administration contracts
  WASHINGTON – Wanted: Face time with President George W. Bush or
top adviser Karl Rove. Suggested donation: $100,000. The middleman:
lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
  Blunt e-mails that connect money and access in Washington show that
prominent Republican activist Grover Norquist facilitated some
administration contacts for Abramoff’s clients while the lobbyist
simultaneously solicited those clients for large donations to Norquist’s tax-
exempt group.
  Those who were solicited or landed administration introductions
included foreign figures and American Indian tribes, according to e-mails
gathered by Senate investigators and federal prosecutors or obtained
independently by The Associated Press.
Creating a Document-Driven
 Ask yourself and colleagues what documents might verify
   Ask sources what documents you could go to for verifying
    this information.
   Check out what other reporters have done with records
    (IRE morgue & tip sheets –
   Collect databases and other information routinely
   Other ideas in handouts
  FOI laws in action
  FOI classic top 5 stories
  Health, homeland security & disaster stories
  Creating a document-driven newsroom
Digging into Documents
 Budgets and tracking the money
 Map the government
 Get the master index of documents
 Request the requests
City Records
   Contractor Records
   Emergency Deferred Loan Program
   Reports of illegal dumping into streams
   Surplus vehicle sales
   Bid tabulations
   Ambulance fees
   Disadvantage Business Enterprises certifications
   Consolidated dispatching
   Business licenses
   Cell phone records
   Travel vouchers
   Car fleets and fuel allowances
   Emergency Loan Program
Documents on Deadline
 Police reports and historical data
 Voter registration records
 Professional licenses
 Incorporation records
 Census
Documents Online
   Business: SEC quarterly documents (10-Qs),
   Disasters: FAA accident data,
   Education: Office for Civil Rights,
   Environment: National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System
   Health: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office
   Politics: Center for Responsive Politics,
   Sports: Graduation rates of college athletes or http:///
Records relevant to tribes
 Grants
 Audits (e.g., GAO reports)
 Discussion with state/federal governments
 Congressional documents
 National Indian Gaming Commission
 FEC ( or
 County court and property records
Small-Group Discussion
 In groups of 2-3 people introduce yourselves and
  talk about your beat.
 In 10 minutes, answer three questions:
   1. What records do I need to start asking for?
   2. What sources beyond “usual suspects” should I get to
   3. What stories could I start working in the next week?
 Designate a spokesperson to report on highlights.
Part II: The Method
State Public Records Laws
“The people, in delegating authority, do not
  give their public servants the right to
  decide what is good for the people to
  know and what is not good for them to
  know. The people insist on remaining
  informed so that they may retain control
  over the instruments they have created.”
                -- Texas Government Code Section 522.001
                -- Washington state code
State Law Basics
   Usually applies to state agencies, cities,
    counties, school districts and other taxing
    districts. Sometimes applies to legislative
    branch, and usually not the courts.
   Applies to actual records (in any format), not
    answers to questions.
   Records are presumed open unless there is a law
    that says they aren’t.
   Once a request is submitted, it usually starts the
    clock ticking to force a response (except in some
   The government usually is required to cite a
    specific law that would allow for keeping
    anything secret.
   Appeal process and/or punishment.
Records Request Letter Example
July 22, 2006

David K. Cook
City of Dallas Office of Financial Services
1500 Marilla Street, Room 4D North
Dallas, TX 75201

Dear Mr. Cook,
            Pursuant to the state open records law, Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. 552.001 to 552.353, I write to request access t o and a copy of all expense
      reports for the mayor for the past five years. If your agency does not maintain these public records, please let me know who does and include
      the proper custodian’s name and address.
            I agree to pay any reasonable copying and postage fees of not more than $5. If the cost would be greater tha n this amount, please notify
      me. Please provide a receipt indicating the charges for each document.
            I would request your response within ten (10) business days (Twenty (20) days if my request requires substan tial programming or
      manipulation of data). If you believe this information is not public, the law requires that you notify me immediately and the n seek a formal
      decision from the Texas Attorney General not later than ten (10) calendar days from your receipt of this request. Tex. Gov’t Code Ann.
            If you choose to deny this request, please provide a written explanation for the denial including a referenc e to the specific statutory
      exemption(s) upon which you rely. Also, please provide all segregable portions of otherwise exempt material.
            Please be advised that I am prepared to pursue whatever legal remedy necessary to obtain access to the reque sted records. I would note
      that violation of the open records law can result in a fine of up to $1,000, imprisonment of up to six months, or both. Litig ation costs and
      reasonable attorney fees may also be assessed against you.
           Thank you for your assistance.


David Cuillier
Univision Dallas
2323 Bryan St.
Dallas, TX 75201

Handout: Sample FOI letter
Devil in the details
 Check out your state law:
Reality: Access Denied Often
Study of 32 access audits conducted nationally since 1992
Government routinely denies records illegally, depending on type of record

Record type requested                  Provided, on average

City council minutes                             93%
Restaurant inspections                           86%
City/county expense reports                      74%
City/county travel vouchers                      74%
Coach salary                                     68%
Superintendent contract                          66%
City employee overtime pay                       60%
Jail log                                         58%
Police/sheriff incident report                   55%
Police crime log                                 29%
Access Strategy: Preparation
   Avoid fishing
   Get specific
   Prioritize
   Know the law (review RCFP guide to public records)
   Be polite but persistent
   Ask verbally
   Submit a request to start the clock ticking.
   Keep forms handy
   Letter generators at and
   Choose your tone
   Keep records of records

Handout: Planning your FOI request
Access Strategy: Mind Power
 The right frame of mind: You’re “The Donald” of this
   corporate giant we call the U.S. of A.

 Officials want to say “yes.” With your help they can.
    –   Reciprocation
    –   Commitment
    –   Social proof
    –   Liking
    –   Authority
    –   Scarcity

Handout: The art of access
Access Strategy: Handling Denials
If they say…

   “Your description is inadequate.”
   “The requested material does not exist.”
   “We don’t trust how you might use the information.”
   “We don’t have time or resources to handle your request.”
   “Parts are exempt, so you can’t have anything.”
   “OK. That will be $450,000, please.”
   “Just sign here on this contract line.”
   “We don’t have to give you nothin’!” (actual quote from a

 Handout: How to handle denials
    Strategy: When denied
 Don’t get mad, get busy
 Discuss with access expert to make sure you are right
 Get the public parts (redact private stuff), and then ratchet open the
    redacted parts
   Be “The Helper.” Help them help you help the public, e.g., use a
    camera or scanner to avoid copy charges
   Make requests of many agencies
   Send or cc written request to highest levels
   Use peer pressure and guilt
   Get support from SPJ (may write letter of support and squawk)
   Get support from AG; use government sources
   Follow-up calls increase response rates
   Tell viewers about it! Interview the elected officials, citizens. Focus on
    denial for citizens, not the station
   Appeal/litigate
   Conduct a statewide or countywide access audit
   Work to get better legislation passed
The Federal Freedom of Information
Act (FOIA)
Stories Using FOIA
   Safety problems at small airlines
   Dangerous work places
   Radiation experimentation
   Increased health risks in work places
   Wasteful government spending
   Campaign finance
   Lobbyist expenditures
   Travel of members of Congress
   Homeland security expenditures
   Audits of military bases
   Biological and chemical exposures
   Safety in national parks
   501 c 3s – IRS Form 990 –
 Who is covered?
  – Executive Branch departments, agencies, and
    offices; federal regulatory agencies; and federal
 Who is not covered?
  – Congress, the federal courts, and parts of the
    Executive Office of the President that function
    solely to advise and assist the President, are not
    subject to the FOIA
Source: National Security Archive
U.S. Freedom of Information Act
(FOIA) Exemptions
1.   National security
2.   Internal agency personnel rules
3.   Information exempted by dozens of federal laws already
     on the books – “Catch-all exemption”
4.   Trade secrets and confidential commercial information
5.   Internal agency memoranda and policy decisions
6.   Personal privacy – The Privacy Act
7.   Law enforcement investigations
8.   Federally regulated banks
9.   Oil and gas wells
Fee waivers
 For all non-commercial requesters the first two
  hours of search time and 100 pages of copying
  free of charge.
 If you are a representative of the news media, you
  are entitled to waiver of all search and review
 In addition, all fees, including copying, must be
  waived by the agency if the material requested "is
  likely to contribute significantly to public
  understanding of the operations or activities of
  government and is not primarily in the commercial
  interest of the requester."
For More Information
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the
  Press. Online manual.
Health Insurance Portability and
Accountability Act (HIPAA)
 Hospitals required by federal law to withhold
  information unless patients consent.
 If patient consents, then hospitals may release a
  one-word description of the condition and
  location, but only if know name of person.
 Descriptions include: undetermined, treated and
  released, stabilized, satisfactory, serious, critical,
  deceased, released. Won’t say if person is stabbed,
  shot, intoxicated, result of suicide, etc.
 Go to other sources: Police, fire, paramedics,
  coroner, family, etc.
Family Educational Rights and
Privacy Act (FERPA)
 Makes secret student “education records”
 After student is 18 or leaves high school then parents don’t
  even have right to see records, such as grades
 May provide information if students/parents consent
 Directory information is specifically public, including
  name, address, phone, date of birth, place of birth, honors
  and awards, and dates of attendance (see DOE site:
 Records involving violent crime on campuses are required
  to be public, along with campus police crime logs and
  annual campus crime statistics (Clery Act)
Top 10 Meetings Tips
   Diffuse the open meetings bomb
   “Retreats” should raise a red flag
   Be careful of attorney-client privilege
   Challenge “stealth” agendas
   Question boilerplate closures
   Beware or “electronic meetings”
   Beware of “work meetings” or “committee of the whole” meetings
   Get the meeting documents
   Beware of executive sessions for non-specific times and locations

Handouts: Sunshine laws background
          Top-10 open meetings red flags
Five Stories You Can Start Today
 Bus drivers and driving records
 Out-of-court settlements
 Budgets
 Local crime statistics
 Salaries
 Census localized
 Story ideas: (Al’s Morning Meeting)
IRE Web Site (Story database)
Help is a call or click away
Handout: FOI resources

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