How to Dig Dirt from Big Government: Part 1
|English: Internal CIA memo, released under the Freedom of Information Act, describing the CIA's role in the overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz. (2 of 5) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
How to Dig Dirt from Big Government is a sporadic series covering the topic of researching information from governmental groups, who often are not quick to respond to requests. This can include FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) and OPRA (NJ Open Public Records Act) requests, as well as other legal means of obtaining information. It is hoped that providing this series of articles will help others to become more informed citizens and to ensure their representation in a system which may not always notice the "little guy" even when it's making it's good faith best effort. Consider FOIA & OPRA interchangeable in this series unless specifically noted.
What is FOIA / OPRA?
FOIA stands for the Freedom of Information Act, which in short is the legal mechanism by which the United States Federal Government is responded to provide you with any information beyond its own whims and public relations agenda. OPRA is the NJ version of FOIA; a little different, not quite as forceful, but largely effective for those who understand the system.
Who is FOIA for?
FOIA and government records are not for conspiracy theorists. Conspiracy theorists have a close association in the media with public records requests, but the truth is, most public records requests are made by members of the media, private individuals with cases against the government, university researchers (constantly), and unfortunately, State and Regional Elected Officials who have exhausted other means of dealing with the people above them. FOIA is a tool much more for education and equality than for pushing political agendas and manipulation. FOIA is for everday, 9-5 work, stay-at-home, 2.5 kids or 2.5 dogs, young, old, and in-between peoples / families / organizations.
What are Examples of FOIA Requests?
Examples of OPRA / FOIA requests include: budgetary documents from a municipality for fiscal year 2012, resumes submitted for a public employee job opening (with SSN's, addresses, and phone redacted), waste disposal expenses for the Wyoming Department of Parks for a given month, minutes from public meetings, and so on and so forth.
What's Not a Valid FOIA Request?
Nothing. Anything and everything is able to be requested, but the Federal and many State governments have agreed that in general, documents which violate the right of private citizens to privacy will not be released. This includes Social Security Numbers, unlisted telephone numbers, home addresses, and more. However, even those items are extremely situational. For example, while public officials may have their private financial records made public under OPRA / FOIA, even political candidates are subject to increased scrutiny. Just the act of sending a letter to your congressman, may make that letter along with the contact information you included, a part of the public, requestable record, depending on where you live and where the record is maintained. Additionally, individuals who have taken a very public stance may receive less privacy under FOIA, depending on who is making the request and who is fulfilling the request.
What Makes FOIA Work?
FOIA works, loosely, on precedent. If you can find a case where a similar record was released previously, chances are your request will be accepted. If your FOIA request is denied, whether or not you'll win upon complaint and appeal is pretty closely tied to how hard and for how long you argue. This is by no means a legal definition, but I've found it to be true. A lot of government records custodians like to maintain their organizations' privacy... which is understandable as they have a boss above them who's going to give them a hard time if they disclose the department's petty cash budget or interoffice phone numbers when it isn't convenient, so you may get your FOIA requests denied even if they're legally valid. You just have to be polite, incredibly polite, and persistent... and did I mention polite? It's the system's fault that we pay people to keep a lock of public records and that's a symptom of a poor "corporate culture" in some federal and state governmental departments, it's not the record-custodian's fault for collecting a paycheck.
That said, if a record's custodian is intransigent about your FOIA / OPRA (it means they won't budge), sometimes you just have to submit a Complaint / Appeal. In NJ this is done via the Government Records Council.
Christopher Lotito is a member of the Pequannock Historic District and Open Space Commissions. As an expert on local flooding he is also the author of "Torrent," a book about flooding in the region. Lotito's personal mission is to reduce new taxes, drastically reduce flooding, and preserve more green spaces for our children. Christopher Lotito Profile