Welcome once again to Sunshine Week! It’s that time of year when journalists, citizen watchdogs, community activists, data wizards, political gadflies, public-records litigators, and open-gov fanatics come together to champion the cause of transparency and commiserate over the obstacles we face everyday while chasing sunlight.
A few weeks ago, EFF put out a call for nominations for The Foilies, a set of awards to recognize some of most absurd, frustrating, and outrageous interactions with the government that the transparency community experienced in 2014. We received dozens of submissions crossing the spectrum, from local citizens butting heads with city officials to national media organizations struggling against some of the largest federal agencies. With the help of the Sunlight Foundation, Muckrock, and CJ Ciaramella of the FOIA Rundown we filtered the most noteworthy, sorted them by broad themes, and we will be rolling them out in batches over the course of the week.
Today we’re issuing the first batch of winners. We're calling these the Process Foilies, because sometimes it’s the public-records process itself that gets in the way of transparency, whether its exorbitant fees, epochal waiting periods, or institutional indifference.
Drug Enforcement Administration’s “El Chapo” Files
In March 2014, Muckrock user John Dyer filed a Freedom of Information Act request for records associated with the DEA’s involvement in capturing Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in Mexico. The DEA responded that they had identified 13,051 potentially relevant case files and they'd be happy to provide them as long as Dyer paid $1,461,712 in fees upfront for search fees—potentially the highest FOIA estimate in history. As a token of their good faith, the DEA told Dyer he could have two hours of search time and 100 pages of copies for free.
Semper Absurdus Medal
US Marine Corps’ Five Oldest FOIA Requests
If Inception was actually a comedy of errors about paperwork, then FOIA requester Jason Smathers might’ve been cast in Leonardo DiCaprio’s place. Like entering a dream within a dream, Smathers filed a FOIA request in 2010 for the Marines’ five oldest FOIA requests.
Four years later, everything that could’ve gone wrong has gone wrong. Months at a time passed with no response to his follow-up emails, except for the occasional automatic “away” message. The request was bounced between administrators, put on hold during the government shutdown, and stalled when an employee retired. In 2014, the Marines told Smathers that the files he sought were sent to an encrypted, external archiving server, which then crashed and had to be sent out for repair, with no estimate when it might be back in service. Now four years on, his request for old requests is well on its way to becoming an old request itself.
Most Analog-Age Excuse
The Mississippi Department of Human Services’ Metal File Fasteners
In April 2014, The Hechinger Report set out to investigate the quality of Mississippi’s licensed childcare centers and filed a public records request with the Mississippi Department of Human Services for a year’s worth of inspection reports. As Education Reporter Jackie Mader writes:
These reports are public records, but are not published anywhere. That means if a parent would like to see an inspection report before enrolling their child in a center, they must file a public records request, which for parents in the poorest and most rural parts of the state, can be an immense challenge, if not impossible.
Mississippi gave The Hechinger Reporter a quote of $26,527, claiming it would take 45 minutes to compile each 10-page record, at a cost of $40 per hour. Some of that effort would involve redacting children’s personal information and standing at the copying machine, but that wasn’t the only cost. As the department lawyers told the state’s ethics commission after The Hechinger Report filed a complaint (bolding added):
...the Department's child care licensing files are paper files maintained in expandable file folders - they are not digital, because they involve a great deal of handwritten inspection and investigation notes. A staff member will then remove all of the responsive paperwork for the past year from the files of each of the 438 facilities. (We would point out that all of the files are 2-hole punched at the top with metal fasteners, so it is somewhat time-consuming to remove paper from the files.)
The Great FBI Flood of 2011
Kevin Savetz of AtariPodcast.com wanted to see if the FBI has investigated Atari or Mattel. Meanwhile, Miles Madison wanted to know if the FBI had investigated a certain Romanian cycling champion. Both received this response:
On September 8, 2011, the facility where the records are stored suffered a catastrophic flood that temporarily prohibits access to these records. Remediation is ongoing for the records stored in this facility. Unfortunately, we are unable to determine if, or when, these records will be available for review.
After he got nowhere with his appeal, Madison filed a new FOIA request in August 2014, this time seeking all records relating to the flood, including damage assessments, the remediation plan and its associated costs, and any reports outlining the cause of the flood. Seven months later, the FBI still hasn’t provided any documents to prove that the records will ever be salvaged.
Least Transparent Transparency
New York Police Department’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) Materials
Frustrated with being stymied the NYPD’s FOIL unit, Muckrock’s Shawn Musgrave filed a FOIL request for the handbooks and training materials that guide the FOIL units’ processing of requests. No dice, a “records access officer” wrote back, those documents are exempt from FOIL because they are attorney work product and covered by the attorney-client privilege.
For other posts from The Foilies: