By Andrew Collins |Watchdog.org
One of the core values of the American experiment is the idea of transparency.
SHUT OUT: Sometimes the refusal to hand over information is more telling than the information itself.
Citizens have a right to know what their government is up to – how tax dollars are being spent, what public servants do while on the job, and why certain decisions are made that affect our communities.
Unfortunately, this ideal of government transparency is not always put into practice. In our investigations into government shenanigans, the Watchdog.org team has often encountered the harsh wall of bureaucracy. Here are 10 times the government stonewalled requests for information:
1. “How could I not have been aware of just how busy everyone at my IRS has been?”
Watchdog.org’s Deputy Editor Mark Lisheron has had quite the affair with the IRS. After sending in a Freedom of Information Act request on Aug. 21, 2013, for a certain body of communication between the IRS and the U.S. Department of Labor, he has received four identical letters asking for an extension. The most recent of these letters is dated Sept. 18, and asks to be allowed until Dec. 19 to respond.
Lisheron expects he’ll be receiving another one just like it right before Dec. 19.
2. ‘Nontraditional’ news outlets shut out
When Watchdog.org education reporter Mary Tillotson found out media could get access to results of the taxpayer-funded Nation Assessment Education Board test (“the nation’s report card”) a day or two before they went public, plus a tele-press conference, she requested access. She quickly found out, however, that only “traditional” media outlets — that included the Huffington Post, but not Watchdog.org — were allowed.
We wrote a story about the incident calling out their media favoritism.
3. ‘Unless he’s on vacation or something, he’s a good guy, generally pretty responsive.’
The Philadelphia School District seems unwilling to let facts get in the way of political rhetoric, neglecting to respond even to simple questions about class sizes.
Fernando Gallard, the district’s spokesman, spoke with a Watchdog reporter who wanted to send questions via email. Gallard gave his email address, and after emailing him, the Watchdog reporter has not heard from him, despite multiple phone calls. The district’s phone line often went to voice mail and couldn’t receive new messages. When a receptionist answered, the reporter was told Gallard was constantly in meetings and would surely respond.
Well … he hasn’t.
4. Sure, you can have those academic records … for TEN GRAND!
A Nevada dad asked his school district for his own child’s academic records. The district told him it would cost $10,000.
Aside from being completely absurd, critics say this violates the federal student privacy law. How in the world could it cost that much to access your own kids’ data records?
We’re still trying to figure that one out.
5. Welfare spending kept under lock and key
A Watchdog.org reporter in Iowa requested detailed reports of transaction information for Iowa welfare recipients. The public had good reason to know the information in these reports, but the reporter was denied for bogus reasons. Months later, officials were still stalling.
Iowa law requires public entities to respond immediately to routine requests for information, but allows them 10 business days or 20 calendar days for a “good faith, reasonable delay.”
So much for that.
6. ‘Open’ records? Seriously?
Multiple sources told former Wisconsin Reporter staffer Ryan Ekvall that the Department of Public Instruction is basically denying public access by charging excessive fees for producing government records.
For example, a request for emails regarding Andrew Harris, a porn-watching teacher at the Middleton school district, would have cost $18,000. This was later found to be a math error and bumped down to $1,870.
7. Never mind that they were supposed to provide an estimate
Josh Kaib of WatchdogWire.com requested documents pertaining to Augusta, Ga.’s seizure of private property through Georgia’s Open Records Act. As a result of the request, the city’s law department sent him 108 pages of documents at a cost of $126.80.
It’s certainly not as outlandish as the $10,000 transcripts, but the city first claimed it could not even provide an estimate for the cost, violating the Open Records Act.
8. Let no sticky note be spared!
Watchdog.org’s Jon Cassidy has spent some time watching University of Texas officials try to destroy records. For example, two regents of the University of Texas System pressed for the destruction of hundreds of thousands of records maintained by university President Bill Powers’ office earlier this year.
This included “hundreds of thousands of emails,” as well as “written notes or sticky notes” that Powers’ office had been saving for more than a year.
What did they want to hide? The incident marks quite a low point in transparency at UT.
9. Semantic maneuvers that would make lawyers proud
On another occasion, Cassidy made a seemingly straightforward request for copies of “all email communications during the past 60 days between and among (University of Texas) Regents, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, UT Austin President Bill Powers and Nancy Brazzil.”
But here’s the response he received back: “System does not maintain any emails to or from Wallace Hall to another regent that includes Chancellor Cigarroa and President Powers. The email you have attached below is an email from Wallace Hall to Chairman Foster only and does not include Chancellor Cigarroa or President Powers and is therefore, not responsive to your request.”
Got that? Only emails sent to all of the parties count as “emails between Wallace Hall and the other regents, Chancellor Cigarroa, and President Powers.”
Gosh, if he’d only used “among” and maybe “and/or,” he would’ve gotten his email.
10. Three strikes in Florida
Florida Watchdog’s Marianla Toledo has run into the firm wall of bureaucracy on several occasions. First, she had quite the ordeal trying to get information from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. First, ICE told her her request was going to cost some money. When she responded that Watchdog.org was a nonprofit organization and thus shouldn’t be charged for it, they said her request for information was “too vague” — even when she took the questions from their own budget line and documents.
Second, two weeks after Toledo sent a FOIA request to the Florida Department of Children and Families, she received a phone call saying that her request would take some time because the documents she was looking for where stored in a warehouse. Two months later she was still waiting.
Even worse than those two, she said, was having the notion she could FOIA the city of Miami on how they spend the money of a particular trust fund. After contacting four or five departments over and over again, and then after sending the FOIA request, she received an email saying your “FOIA request is being processed.” After waiting for 20 days, she contacted them again to hear “you should contact a different department.”
Bureaucracy at its finest.