Delayed MuckRock Requests

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While building out MuckRock, we’ve come across some new and challenging problems, few of which we’ve seen before, personally, and many which are completely novel. We’re going to occasionally make mistakes, but one of our goals is to fix them as quickly and professionally as possible, while being as transparent and above board with both what went wrong and what we’re doing to fix it.

With that in mind, we sent out the following e-mail this morning to a small number of users: More

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FOIA Friday: Jolly New England!

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I swear, I didn’t choose to write about all New England issues this week. It just sort of happened! I guess we’re just that interesting ’round here. Remember that 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.

Past violations litter MBTA bus drivers’ records: Who here takes public transportation to get around? I do. I spend near-on four hours a day on various buses and trains. So when the Boston Herald speaks about the egregiously-lame hiring policies of the MBTA, I get a little peeved. And worried. It turns out that many of the drivers employed by the MBTA are in fact career road criminals, several with multiple moving violations and bad reputations. To get this information, the Herald requested the driving records of 25 randomly-sorted drivers after a driver was accused of playing a game of ‘chicken’ with another bus.

‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ Killer Records Found: Heading to Connecticut, we get to see some classic government difficulty-for-its-own-sake. The medical and psychological records of the woman whose poisonous plans became the basis of the film “Arsenic and Old Lace.” have been discovered by helth officials. The information was first requested by Ronald Robillard years ago, and he was told in response that the documents couldn’t be found. Now that they ARE found … well, Robert is still not getting his hands on them, apparently. Keep an eye peeled for this one in the next few weeks. (via NEFAC)

Door cracks open on government activity: Hooray for Vermont! The governor of that state has just signed into law a bill that adds protocols for winning FOI appeals to get their money back, as well as called for a review of the 250 exemptions to FOI laws. Advocates in Vermont, however, aren’t stopping there; they claim to have more plans for increasing government transparency. (via NEFAC)

Crushed by town pensions: I’m just going to open this entry with a fact: a single retired police chief in Stratford, Connecticut ”. . . if he lives to 75, the average life expectancy for a white male in this country will cost taxpayers $2.8 million.” This is caused by the bloated, inefficient and non-maintained pension system in Stratford and Connecticut at large. Click through to see what specific employees make in pensions. Because of the overtime-and-vacation based pensions, most money in the pension fund is concentrated to very few people, while the rest of pensions suffer because the fund is 51% unfunded. (via NEFAC)

FOIA Friday: Anthony Weiner Jokes!

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You thought we were above it, but if Jon Stewart goes there, so do we. Remember that 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, without interruption, the news:

FBI investigated Sargent Shriver’s links to communists: We’ll start this week with an interesting look back on the politics of the past. R. Sargent Shriver Jr., who passed away in January, was the founder of the Peace Core, leader of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, and held numerous other political positions. After his passing, his FBI file was released through a FOIA request, revealing that Shriver had been investigated for Communist ties after being appointed by LBJ to the post of ambassador to France. One Red flag that arose in the investigation was Shriver’s travels in Europe with a youth group through the Experiment in International Living, who had previously been investigated for their sympathies towards Chinese Communists. The FBI was still investigating Shriver’s communist ties as late as 1986, when the agency reported on Shriver’s relationship with former campaign employee David Karr, who the FBI believed passed information to the KGB.

ICE Stalling On More FOIA Requests Concerning Domain Name Seizures: I’m beginning to doubt I’ll ever get to write one of these without having to call out ICE for something. One would think the agency wasn’t actually in support of increased government transparency! The horror. Anyways, the scoop this time is pretty simple: ICE has been seizing domain names, and people want to know why. Requests by Michael Robertson’s NakedGovernment and MuckRock’s own Aaron Schwartz (director of Demand Progress) have been stonewalled for months.

FOI hearing officer backs police on release of Haberek images: Man, what is it with politicians and sending illicit pictures to people they aren’t married to? No, I’m not talking about Anthony Weiner. I’m talking about First Selectmen Ed Haberek, who allegedly sent inappropriate pictures to an unnamed woman in 2010. The Connecticut-based newspaper The Day requested the pictures, which were sent from the Selectman’s town-issue Blackberry. After the original request was rejected, The Day appealed the decision, but the FOI Commission rejected the appeal because the investigation involved uncorroborated allegations and would reveal private information.

Public records outrage of the day: North Providence edition: Finally, from WPRI news: after reporter Tim White broke a story about a Providence, RI firefighter stealing prescription painkillers during an emergency call, he called the fire department to ask some followup questions. After gathering some basic info, he requested that, pursuant to Rhode Island’s public information laws, the department send over the arrest record. What he received was less a useful document and more a sheet of redactions and a few innocuous sentences, despite the assurances from the station that only names would be redacted. White refused to take that lying down, and after a new call to the station, received a much less-redacted document. You can compare the two by clicking the link, but what we can take away from this is that the attitude of redact first, ask questions never pervades even local government.

What Phil Mocek’s NCI Request Teaches Us

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Most FOI requests make, at the most, one ripple. Someone writes an article, others spread it, and then it’s forgotten. Sometimes, requests have a wider impact, with major papers printing about them. And sometimes, as in the case of the request filed on March 30th by MuckRock user pmocek, spread across the ‘net like wildfire, with everyone and their cousin holding an opinion.

Phil Mocek’s request, asking for “all records of communications regarding the creation and modification of National Cancer Institute’s Physician Data Query (PDQ) ‘Cannabis and Cannabinoids’ section, including but not limited to any discussion of any ‘direct antitumor effect’ of cannabis or cannabinoids, along with associated metadata,” was fulfilled early this month, and the results were, to say the least, interesting. Included in the files released were correspondences between NCI doctors and researchers and concerned agencies such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA), wherein the latter two agencies pressured the writers of the PDQ to omit information such as the potential tumor-reduction abilities of cannabanoids, as well as pushing for the addition of warnings about cannabis’ addictive potential and illegal status in the U.S. What made it into the final PDQ was still a good argument for the use of cannabanoids on chemotherapy patients—it relieves nausea and pain in such patients—but the internal politicking that led to omissions and edits is what makes this whole saga fascinating.

Cannabis falls into a sort of medicinal sweet spot where the FDA doesn’t approve its use because of lack of conclusive evidence of its supposed benefits (indeed, marijuana is a Class 1 restricted drug for individuals) but also refuses to approve the clinical trials of cannabis that would be required to prove such benefits. Much of the results used in the PDQ were from trials on animals, and therefore inconclusive when it comes to human benefit.

All of the cogent information (and much supposition) has been covered elsewhere, as you can see in the sidebar of the original request. What I find most interesting about what was released in response to Mocek’s request is how it reveals, essentially, the parts that make up a political machine. It’s all too easy to lose sight of the fact that governments are made up of people, and that those people have many differing viewpoints; from the outside, all we see is the party line. As such, the communications from people such as Donald Abrams at the NCI, who expressed sentiments such as “I am considering resigning from the Board if we allow politics to trump science!” are essential, because they remind us (and I use us to mean anyone who is for more government transparency) to see that there are indeed good people on the inside. There are those who want to edit the message, sure, but there are also the Abramses who resist the pressure of agencies like NIDA. And especially close to all our hearts here at MuckRock, there are the people like Phil Mocek, who ask the right questions of the right people.

USCIS FOIA Processing Handbook

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On August 2, 2010 a FOIA request was made to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services via email. The request sought “all documentation and training material made available to USCIS employees or contractors concerning the policies and practices of processing FOIA requests.”

Nearly 10 months later, on May 31, 2011, a CD arrived in the mail from USCIS containing a 1,161 page PDF file of approximately 22 Megabytes. USCIS is to be commended on their use of modern technology. The FBI would have responded to this request requiring a $45 fee after splitting the request into three CDs at $15 each. The FBI processes requests in 500 page increments causing this problem in their agency. At the compression rate use by USCIS, they could fit 37,760 pages on a single CD in PDF format, while the FBI lags behind at a mere 500.

These 1,161 pages give a unique insight into the thinking and training of the person who will be processing your FOIA requests. Going through this handbook will allow FOIA requesters to understand exactly how their request will be handled and possibly allow them to tailer their request to better fit the USCIS processes.

Download the full manual here as a PDF.

Jason Smathers is a MuckRock user and contributor as well as an independent investigative journalist. You can follow his writing on his website.

FOIA Friday: Summer, Anyone?

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Okay, I’ll admit it, I had just run out of May puns. Luckily, we’ve a new month now! Unluckily, June is fairly unpunnable. Sigh. Remember that 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, if you will, the news:

ACLU seeks records on ICE enforcement activities: Once again, the ACLU is clashing with ICE, and once again it seems that the the former are in the right. This time, the dispute is over the detention and assault of a lawful permanent resident and her son (an American citizen) in Grand Rapids in February. Mother Telma Valdez and her college-age son, Luis (born in the US) were grabbed by ICE agents when en route to a cousin’s house. An agent pulled a gun on the pair, and allegedly slammed Telma’s head into the side of the van that they put both Telma and Luis, handcuffed, into the back of. They were then driven to an apartment and questioned, which is when it became clear that they were both in the US perfectly legally. The ACLU has filed a FOI request for all the planning materials of the raid, as well as ICE’s racial profiling protocols and interrogation methods.

CIA Won’t Release All Info on Catholic Group Opus Dei: In a fairly bizarre case that began with a purely-academic FOI request, the CIA now faces a lawsuit from Public Citizen in support of Harry Carson, a graduate student at the City University of New York. Caron was working on his Ph.D. dissertation on the US’s involvement in Franco’s Spain when he found he needed more information on the Catholic group Opus Dei. He put in a FOI request for the CIA’s files on the group in June 2009, and though he received just over 200 pages, the more interesting part of the CIA’s response is the agency’s insistence that they cannot confirm or deny the existence of any further records. . . for reasons of national security. Public Citizen and Caron, unsatisfied with the implication that records that are at least 31 years old could have national security ramifications, have brought suit.

City of Vancouver fed up with FOI requests from journalists: Chad Skelton of the Vancouver Sun writes here about the submission filed by the City of Vancouver to Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham that, in part, spent time complaining about the use of FOI laws by journalists. Primary among the city’s qualms is the habit of journalists of keeping a scoop secret before releasing their article (a process streamlined by MuckRock’s “Embargo” option), which it argues is using public-information laws for personal profit. The city also takes exception to “hundreds” of FOI requests that journalists are submitting every year, to which Skelton responds by saying he has only submitted one, and it was delayed several times by city bureaucracy.

Mayors, watchdogs at odds over changes to Illinois FOIA: Perhaps just to prove that US city and state officials can be as obtuse about FOI laws as their Canadian counterparts, there is a proposed amendment to FOI laws in Illinois that would limit all citizens to a maximum of seven requests per week. Frequent filers who pass that limit would have their requests put at the back of the queue and would remove the time limit on how long the agency can take to respond. Mayors across the state allege that this amendment would give the government more time to respond to requests, and that many requests are unfeasible given the time they have to be completed in.