FOIA FIGHT: A Watchdog.org request for welfare-related transaction data reached the state attorney general office.
By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Virginia’s top constitutional authority reiterated Thursday what state and federal officials have said before — that, when it comes to food stamp data, federal law prohibits public access.
Virginia’s Department of Social Services officially responded to Watchdog.org’s Freedom of Information Act request filed earlier in the week, saying they’d referred the matter to Attorney General Mark Herring’s office.
Watchdog.org sought the date and time, location and amount of transactions made from July 1, 2013, through Sept. 1, 2013, in Richmond with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
Virginia’s DSS and Treasury Department say they have no way to access, track or audit TANF transactions to make sure they aren’t being used on illegal items, as Watchdog.org previously reported. SNAP is another story.
A letter from DSS’ Thomas Steinhauser, director of the division of benefit programs, reads: “(The attorney general’s office) found that 7 USC 2018c states in part: ‘Regulations issued pursuant to this Act (Food Stamp Act) shall provide for safeguards which limit the use or disclosure of information…’” It goes on to say that any information collected from retailers about redemption data can only be disclosed to state agencies involved in the program.
“Therefore, because you are not directly connected to either the administration or enforcement of the Food Stamp Act and the information requested is sales and redemption data required to be provided by the retailer/wholesale concern under the authority granted to DSS by the FSA, this information is exempt from disclosure,” the letter concludes.
Michael Kelly, Herring’s communications director, didn’t immediately respond to Watchdog.org’s request for elaboration.
Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau isn’t the only news outlet fighting for this kind of information.
The U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals last week ruled in favor of the Argus Leader newspaper in South Dakota, saying the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s argument that a federal law protecting retailer applications doesn’t mean federal payment data to those retailers is also protected.
Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, said this all boils down to a “basic government accountability issue.”
“Certainly the public and the press — and the press is an important intermediary for the public — have a right and a need to know not only how their tax dollars are being allocated, but also, to have some ability to figure out how tax dollars are being spent,” McDermott told Watchdog.org.
Individual SNAP participant information, of course, needs to be protected. Even individual transactions, perhaps, could be, she said.
“I’m a little more uneasy about what they’re being spent for because … that easily feeds into bashing poor people for their choices,” McDermott added.
She said the press and public should have the ability to see where participants are spending public dollars — and whether retailers are also complying with the law, which restricts purchases at places like strip clubs and casinos.
Access can come down to a public health issue, too, she said. It’s valuable to be able to discern where poorer Virginians are getting their nutrition.
“I think that’s potentially a public safety interest,” McDermott said. “There are public health considerations if a lot of the retailers are mostly selling junk food. I think it would be really useful to have this data to know.
“They talk about these food deserts in poor areas, where there really aren’t outlets that have fresh vegetables and fresh meat and people are left to buy really old produce or rely on what’s available in stores. So I think the distribution of the use of this would be very informative for the use of tax dollars, but also, what it can tell us about the distribution of outlets for people that are using these.”
If the state truly doesn’t have access to TANF records, that’s “kind of surprising” and an important accountability issue too, she said — perhaps particularly for retailers.
“The flip side of that is they don’t have any way to track it, so it may be being spent in those ways, and retailers may be accepting it for purchases they’re not supposed to accept it for, to turn it back on the retailers,” McDermott said.
Watchdog.org also filed FOIA requests with the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service for SNAP records.
For TANF records, Watchdog.org filed a FOIA request with the federal Administration for Children and Families. That office said they have no TANF records — and that any on file would be with the state, not the feds.
“They don’t collect information on individual transactions,” Kimberly Epstein, a FOIA officer with the Administration for Children and Families who also emailed an official response, told Watchdog.org over the phone. “… That would be an enormous amount of data.”
“The state probably has more detailed information on the use of the funds,” she added.
Of course, the state doesn’t have it either.
— Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter with Watchdog.org, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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