Recognizing the Year’s Worst in Government Transparency
Government transparency laws like the Freedom of Information Act exist to enforce the public’s right to inspect records so we can all figure out what the heck is being done in our name and with our tax dollars.
But when a public agency ignores, breaks or twists the law, your recourse varies by jurisdiction. In some states, when an official improperly responds to your public records request, you can appeal to a higher bureaucratic authority or seek help from an ombudsperson. In most states, you can take the dispute to court.
Public shaming and sarcasm, however, are tactics that can be applied anywhere.
The California-based news organization Reveal tweets photos of chickpeas or coffee beans to represent each day a FOIA response is overdue, and asks followers to guess how many there are. The alt weekly DigBoston has sent multiple birthday cakes and edible arrangements to local agencies on the one-year anniversary of delayed public records requests. And here, at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, we give out The Foilies during Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open-government advocacy.
In its fourth year, The Foilies recognizes the worst responses to records requests, outrageous efforts to stymie transparency and the most absurd redactions. These tongue-in-cheek pseudo-awards are hand-chosen by EFF’s team based on nominations from fellow transparency advocates, participants in #FOIAFriday on Twitter, and, in some cases, our own personal experience.
If you haven’t heard of us before, EFF is a nonprofit based in San Francisco that works on the local, national and global level to defend and advance civil liberties as technology develops. As part of this work, we file scores of public records requests and take agencies like the U.S. Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Los Angeles Police Department to court to liberate information that belongs to the public.
Because shining a spotlight is sometimes the best the litigation strategy, we are pleased to announce the 2018 winners of The Foilies.
Quick links to the winners:
- The Mulligan Award – Pres. Donald J. Trump
- FOIA Fee of the Year – Texas Department of Criminal Justice
- Best Set Design in a Transparency Theater Production – Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed
- Special Achievement for Analog Conversion – Former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray
- The Winger Award for FOIA Feet Dragging – FBI
- The Prime Example Award – Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority (Maine)
- El Premio del Desayuno Más Redactado – CIA
- The Courthouse Bully Award – Every Agency Suing a Requester
- The Lawless Agency Award – U.S. Customs and Border Protection
- The Franz Kafka Award for Most Secrets About Secretive Secrecy – CIA
- Special Recognition for Congressional Overreach – U.S. House of Representatives
- The Data Disappearance Award – Trump Administration
- The Danger in the Dark Award – The Army Corps of Engineers
- The Business Protection Agency Award – The Food and Drug Administration
- The Exhausted Mailman Award – Bureau of Indian Affairs
- Crime & Punishment Award – Martin County Commissioners (Florida)
- The Square Footage Award – Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (Florida)
- These Aren’t the Records You’re Looking For Award – San Diego City Councilmember Chris Cate
Since assuming the presidency, Donald Trump has skipped town more than 55 days to visit his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, according to sites like trumpgolfcount.com and NBC. He calls it his “Winter White House,” where he wines and dines and openly strategizes how to respond to North Korean ballistic missile tests with the Japanese prime minister for all his paid guests to see and post on Facebook. The fact that Trump’s properties have become secondary offices and remain a source of income for his family raises significant questions about transparency, particularly if club membership comes with special access to the president. To hold the administration accountable, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a FOIA request for the visitor logs, but received little in response. CREW sued and, after taking another look, the Secret Service provided details about the Japanese leader’s entourage. As Politico and others reported, the Secret Service ultimately admitted they’re not actually keeping track. The same can’t be said about Trump’s golf score.
Sexual assault in prison is notoriously difficult to measure due to stigma, intimidation, and apathetic bureaucracy. Nevertheless, MuckRock reporter Nathanael King made a valiant effort to find out whatever he could about these investigations in Texas, a state once described by the Dallas Voice as the “Prison Rape Capital of the U.S.” However, the numbers that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice came back with weren’t quite was he was expecting. TDCJ demanded he fork over a whopping $1,132,024.30 before the agency would release 260,000 pages of records that it said would take 61,000 hours of staff time to process. That in itself may be an indicator of the scope of the problem. However, to the agency’s credit, they pointed the reporter in the direction of other statistical records compiled to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, which TDCJ provided for free.
“Transparency theater” is the term we use to describe an empty gesture meant to look like an agency is embracing open government, when really it’s meant to obfuscate. For example, an agency may dump an overwhelming number of documents and put them on display for cameras. But because there are so many records, the practice actually subverts transparency by making it extremely difficult to find the most relevant records in the haystack.
Such was the case with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who released 1.476 million documents about a corruption probe to show his office was supporting public accountability.
“The documents filled hundreds of white cardboard boxes, many stacked up waist high against walls and spread out over rows of tables in the cavernous old City Council chamber,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Leon Stafford wrote. “Reed used some of the boxes as the backdrop for his remarks, creating a six-foot wall behind him.”
Journalists began to dig through the documents and quickly discovered that many were blank pages or fully redacted, and in some cases the type was too small for anyone to read. AJC reporter J. Scott Trubey’s hands became covered in papercut gore. Ultimately, the whole spectacle was a waste of trees: The records already existed in a digital format. It’s just that a couple of hard drives on a desk don’t make for a great photo op.
In the increasingly digital age, more and more routine office communication is occurring over mobile devices. With that in mind, transparency activist Phil Mocek filed a request for text messages (and other app communications) sent or received by now-former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and many of his aides. The good news is the city at least partially complied. The weird news is that rather than seek the help of an IT professional to export the text messages, some staff simply plopped a cell phone onto a photocopier. Mocek tells EFF he’s frustrated that the mayor’s office refused to search their personal devices for relevant text messages. They argued that city policy forbids using personal phones for city business—and of course, no one would violate those rules. However, we’ll concede that thwarting transparency is probably the least of the allegations against Murray, who resigned in September 2017 amid a child sex-abuse scandal.
Thirty years ago, the hair-rock band Winger released “Seventeen”—a song about young love that really hasn’t withstood the test of time. Similarly, the FBI’s claim that it would take 17 years to produce a series of records about civil rights-era surveillance also didn’t withstand the judicial test of time.
As Politico reported, George Washington University professor and documentary filmmaker Nina Seavey asked for records about how the FBI spied on antiwar and civil rights activists in the 1960s and 1970s. The FBI claimed they would only process 500 pages a month, which would mean the full set of 110,000 pages wouldn’t be complete until 2034.
Just as Winger’s girlfriend’s dad disapproved in the song, so did a federal judge, writing in her opinion: “The agency’s desire for administrative convenience is simply not a valid justification for telling Professor Seavey that she must wait decades for the documents she needs to complete her work.”
When Amazon announced last year it was seeking a home for its second headquarters, municipalities around the country rushed to put together proposals to lure the tech giant to their region. Knowing that in Seattle Amazon left a substantial footprint on a community (particularly around housing), transparency organizations like MuckRock and the Lucy Parsons Labs followed up with records requests for these cities’ sales pitches.
More than 20 cities, such as Chula Vista, California, and Toledo, Ohio, produced the records—but other agencies, including Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Jacksonville, Florida, refused to turn over the documents. The excuses varied, but perhaps the worst response came from Maine’s Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority. The agency did provide the records, but claimed that by opening an email containing 37 pages of documents, MuckRock had automatically agreed to pay an exorbitant $750 in “administrative and legal fees.” Remind us to disable one-click ordering.
Buzzfeed reporter Jason Leopold has filed thousands of records requests over his career, but one redaction has become his all-time favorite. Leopold was curious whether CIA staff are assailed by the same stream of office announcements as every other workplace. So, he filed a FOIA request—and holy Hillenkoetter, do they. Deep in the document set was an announcement that “the breakfast burritos are back by popular demand,” with a gigantic redaction covering half the page citing a personal privacy exemption. What are they hiding? Is Anthony Bourdain secretly a covert agent? Did David Petraeus demand extra guac? This could be the CIA’s greatest Latin American mystery since Nicaraguan Contra drug-trafficking.
As director of the privacy advocacy group We See You Watching Lexington, Michael Maharrey filed a public records request to find out how his city was spending money on surveillance cameras. After the Lexington Police Department denied the request, he appealed to the Kentucky Attorney General’s office—and won.
Rather than listen to the state’s top law enforcement official, Lexington Police hauled Maharrey into court.
As the Associated Press reported last year, lawsuits like these are reaching epidemic proportions. The Louisiana Department of Education sued a retired educator who was seeking school enrollment data for his blog. Portland Public Schools in Oregon sued a parent who was curious about employees paid while on leave for alleged misconduct. Michigan State University sued ESPN after it requested police reports on football players allegedly involved in a sexual assault. Meanwhile, the University of Kentucky and Western Kentucky University have each sued their own student newspapers whose reporters were investigating sexual misconduct by school staff.
These lawsuits are despicable. At their most charitable, they expose huge gaps in public records laws that put requesters on the hook for defending lawsuits they never anticipated. At their worst, they are part of a systematic effort to discourage reporters and concerned citizens from even thinking of filing a public records request in the first place.
In the chaos of President Trump’s immigration ban in early 2017, the actions of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and higher-ups verged on unlawful. And if CBP officials already had their mind set on violating all sorts of laws and the Constitution, flouting FOIA seems like small potatoes.
Yet that’s precisely what CBP did when the ACLU filed a series of FOIA requests to understand local CBP agents’ actions as they implemented Trump’s immigration order. ACLU affiliates throughout the country filed 18 separate FOIA requests with CBP, each of which targeted records documenting how specific field offices, often located at airports or at physical border crossings, were managing and implementing the ban. The requests made clear that they were not seeking agency-wide documents but rather wanted information about each specific location’s activities.
CBP ignored the requests and, when several ACLU affiliates filed 13 different lawsuits, CBP sought to further delay responding by asking a federal court panel to consolidate all the cases into a single lawsuit. To use this procedure—which is usually reserved for class actions or other complex national cases—CBP essentially misled courts about each of the FOIA requests and claimed each was seeking the exact same set of records.
The court panel saw through CBP’s shenanigans and refused to consolidate the cases. But CBP basically ignored the panel’s decision, acting as though it had won. First, it behaved as though all the requests came from a single lawsuit by processing and batching all the documents from the various requests into a single production given to the ACLU. Second, it selectively released records to particular ACLU attorneys, even when those records weren’t related to their lawsuits about activities at local CBP offices.
Laughably, CBP blames the ACLU for its self-created mess, calling their requests and lawsuits “haphazard” and arguing that the ACLU and other FOIA requesters have strained the agency’s resources in seeking records about the immigration ban. None of that would be a problem if CBP had responded to the FOIA requests in the first place. Of course, the whole mess could also have been avoided if CBP never implemented an unconstitutional immigration order.
The CIA’s aversion to FOIA is legendary, but this year the agency doubled down on its mission of thwarting transparency. As Emma Best detailed for MuckRock, the intelligence agency had compiled a 20-page report that laid out at least 126 reasons why it could deny FOIA requests that officials believed would disclose the agency’s “sources and methods.”
But that report? Yeah, it’s totally classified. Which is what the agency told Best when they withheld the report in response to her request. So not only do you not get to know what the CIA’s up to, but its reasons for rejecting your FOIA request are also a state secret.
Because Congress wrote the Freedom of Information Act, it had the awesome and not-at-all-a-conflict-of-interest power to determine which parts of the federal government must obey it. That’s why it may not shock you that since passing FOIA more than 50 years ago, Congress has never made itself subject to the law.
So far, requesters have been able to fill in the gaps by requesting records from federal agencies that correspond with Congress. For example, maybe a lawmaker writes to the U.S. Department of Puppies asking for statistics on labradoodles. That adorable email chain wouldn’t be available through Congress, but you could get it from the Puppies Department’s FOIA office. (Just to be clear: This isn’t a real federal agency. We just wish it was.)
In 2017 it’s become increasingly clear that some members of Congress believe that FOIA can never reach anything they do, even when they or their staffs share documents or correspond with federal agencies. The House Committee on Financial Services sent a threatening letter to the Treasury Department telling them to not comply with FOIA. After the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Management and Budget released records that came from the House Ways and Means Committee, the House intervened in litigation to argue that their records cannot be obtained under FOIA.
In many cases, congressional correspondence with agencies is automatically covered by FOIA, and the fact that a document originated with Congress isn’t by itself enough to shield it from disclosure. The Constitution says Congress gets to write laws; it’s just too bad it doesn’t require Congress to actually read them.
Last year, we gave the “Make America Opaque Again Award” award to newly inaugurated President Trump for failing to follow tradition and release his tax returns during the campaign. His talent for refusing to make information available to the public has snowballed into an administration that deletes public records from government websites. From the National Park Service’s climate action plans for national parks, to the U.S.D.A. animal welfare datasets, to nonpartisan research on the corporate income tax, the Trump Administration has decided to make facts that don’t support its positions disappear. The best example of this vanishing game is the Environmental Protection Agency’s removal of the climate change website in April 2017, which only went back online after being scrubbed of climate change references, studies and information to educate the public.
When reporters researching the Dakota Access Pipeline on contested tribal lands asked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ environmental impact statement, they were told nope, you can’t have it. Officials cited public safety concerns as reason to deny the request: “The referenced document contains information related to sensitive infrastructure that if misused could endanger peoples’ lives and property.”
Funny thing is, the Army Corps had already published the same document on its website a year earlier. What changed in that year? Politics. The Standing Rock Sioux, other tribal leaders and “Water Protector” allies had since staged a multi-month peaceful protest and sit-in to halt construction of the pipeline.
The need for public scrutiny of the document became clear in June when a U.S. federal judge found that the environmental impact statement omitted key considerations, such as the impact of an oil spill on the Standing Rock Sioux’s hunting and fishing rights as well as the impact on environmental justice.
The FDA’s mission is to protect the public from harmful pharmaceuticals, but they’ve recently fallen into the habit of protecting powerful drug companies rather than informing people about potential drug risks.
This past year, Charles Seife at the Scientific American requested documents about the drug approval process for a controversial drug to treat Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). The agency cited business exemptions and obscured listed side effects as well as testing methodology for the drug, despite claims that the drug company manipulated results during product trials and pressured the FDA to push an ineffective drug onto the market. The agency even redacted portions of a Bloomberg Businessweek article about the drug because the story provided names and pictures of teenagers living with DMD.
Requesting information that has already been made public should be quick and fairly simple—but not when you’re dealing with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A nomination sent into EFF requested all logs of previously released FOIA information by the BIA. The requester even stated that he’d prefer links to the information, which agencies typically provide for records they have already put on their website. Instead, BIA printed 1,390 pages of those logs, stuffed them into 10 separate envelopes, and sent them via registered mail for a grand total cost to taxpayers of $179.
Generally The Foilies skew cynical, because in many states, open records laws are toothless and treated as recommendations rather than mandates. One major exception to the rule is Florida, where violations of its “Sunshine Law” can result in criminal prosecution.
That brings us to Martin County Commissioners Ed Fielding and Sarah Heard and former Commissioner Anne Scott, each of whom were booked into jail in November on multiple charges related to violations of the state’s public records law. As Jose Lambiet of GossipExtra and the Miami Herald reported, the case emerges from a dispute between the county and a mining company that already resulted in taxpayers footing a $500,000 settlement in a public records lawsuit. Among the allegations, the officials were accused of destroying, delaying and altering records.
The cases are set to go to trial in December 2018, Lambiet told EFF. Of course, people are innocent until proven guilty, but that doesn’t make public officials immune to The Foilies.
When a government mistake results in a death, it’s important for the community to get all the facts. In the case of 63-year-old Blane Land, who was fatally hit by a Jacksonville Sheriff patrol car, those facts include dozens of internal investigations against the officer behind the wheel. The officer, Tim James, has since been arrested on allegations that he beat a handcuffed youth, raising the question of why he was still on duty after the vehicular fatality.
Land’s family hired an attorney, and the attorney filed a request for records. Rather than having a complete airing of the cop’s alleged misdeeds, the sheriff came back with a demand for $314,687.91 to produce the records, almost all of which was for processing and searching by the internal affairs division. Amid public outcry over the prohibitive fee, the sheriff took to social media to complain about how much work it would take to go through all the records in the 1,600-foot cubic storage room filled with old-school filing cabinets.
The family is not responsible for the sheriff’s filing system or feng shui, nor is it the family’s fault that the sheriff kept an officer on the force as the complaints—and the accompanying disciplinary records—stacked up.
Shortly after last year’s San Diego Comic-Con and shortly before the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the city of San Diego held a ceremony to name a street after former resident and actor Mark Hamill. A private citizen (whose day job involves writing The Foilies) wanted to know: How does a Hollywood star get his own roadway?
The city produced hundreds of pages related to his request that showed how an effort to change the name of Chargers Boulevard after the football team abandoned the city led to the creation of Mark Hamill Drive. The document set even included Twitter direct messages between City Councilmember Chris Cate and the actor. However, Cate used an ineffective black marker to redact, accidentally releasing Hamill’s cell phone number and other personal contact details.
As tempting as it was to put Luke Skywalker (and the voice of the Joker) on speed dial, the requester did not want to be responsible for doxxing one of the world’s most beloved actors. He alerted Cate’s office of the error, which then re-uploaded properly redacted documents.