FOIA (Good) Friday

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Happy Good Friday to everyone! This Friday is especially good because not only do you have the holiday, but there’s also another FOI Friday for you. Most of the stuff we’re looking at can be found here anytime you like, and if you have any suggestions, please send them on over to tips@muckrock.com.

Now to the news:

MI State Police: We have nothing to hide: After reports began to circulate in Michigan that police were downloading the full phone records (including texts, e-mails, etc.) of people pulled over in simple traffic stops, the Michigan branch of the ACLU got involved. They submitted their initial FOI request for the records in August of 2008 and were told that the cost of disassembling and disclosing information on five of the devices supposedly used illegally during the stops would cost upwards of $500,000, and the ACLU was told they needed to pay a $272,340 deposit before receiving any documents. Attempts to narrow the request to avoid such exorbitant fees were met with claims that no such records existed. The MI state police department claims that not only do they not use the devices the UCLA claims they do, but also that they had worked with the ACLU to try and lower the fees for the FOI request. The dispute is ongoing.

CREW Files FOIA Request With Secret Service for Records of Health Care Execs White House Visits: Seeking to identify how much, if any, influence healthcare executives had on the design of the “Obamacare” bill, CREW (Citizens for Ethics in Washington) have filed a FOIA request for the records of all visits to Obama by the aforementioned executives. While the president’s administration holds that the records are not subject to FOI laws, CREW is optimistic that the Secret Service will release the information.

General Who Resigned After Abu Ghraib Recruited For Senate Bid: Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez should be no stranger to controversial press, given his involvement as a commanding officer at Abu Ghraib prison. Now the report is that the Democratic party has been grooming him for a Senate run in a typically-conservative district. In spite of his claims to ignorance of the actions of his soldiers, Sanchez didn’t escape the Abu Ghraib hubbub smelling like a rose. According to the results of an ACLU FOI request in 2005, Sanchez issued orders to exploit the fear of dogs of “Arabs” in the prison, and several sources finger him as having been involved in the decision to torture the prisoners.

Bringing the outside in at Eric Holder’s Justice Department: After Attorney General Eric Holder announced a re-invigoration of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, a reasonable observer might expect a new era of equality and transparency. Instead, alleges J. Christian Adams at the Washington Examiner, Holder has ushered in an era of difficulty and political bias. The judges and lawyers hired by Holder’s Justice Department, says Adams, have been activists with extreme views on the issues they’ve been given influence over. Libertarian group Pajama Media filed a FOI request in the summer of 2010, asking for the resumes of all new DoJ hires. It has yet to be fulfilled, in contrast to an identical request that was responded to within three weeks by the Bush administration in 2007.

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Tick tick tick: Running the clock down on fees

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The 2007 amendment to the Freedom of Information Act added a clause that theoretically could eliminate a great deal of fees for FOIA requests. The amendment adds a clause prohibiting fees where the agency fails to meet a time limit. If an agency fails to provide records in 20 or 30 days or if an appeal is not processed in 20 days, than the agency gives up the right to charge certain fees. If the requester is news media or educational, all fees must be waived. Requesters in the “other” and commercial category only have search fees waived in the case of a missed deadline.

(viii) An agency shall not assess search fees (or in the case of a requester described under clause (ii)(II), duplication fees) under this subparagraph if the agency fails to comply with any time limit under paragraph (6),

The law however gives some broad exceptions. If either “unusual” or “exceptional” circumstances apply to the processing of the request, the prohibition against charging certain fees does not apply. There is not a lot of case law on this. In practice agencies are quick to claim “unusual” or “exceptional” circumstances.

By using MuckRock, dates are easily tracked, which allows for proper appeal when a time limit passes unmet. For one particular request to the Bureau of Prisons, the fees were appealed due to failing to meet a time limit. The Department of Justice, Office of Information Policy, responded by waiving the $190 duplication fee and remanding the request back to the Bureau of Prisons.

Jason Smathers is a MuckRock user and an investigative journalist. You can follow his other writing on his blog. Requestor’s Voice is an occasional series, exploring the freedom of information request process at the local, state and federal level from a requestor’s point of view. Interested in contributing? E-mail Michael@MuckRock.com.