By Lynn Walsh, RTDNA Blogger
Like many journalists, finding answers is a daily task of mine. Sometimes that means phone calls and sometimes that means more formal requests, using FOIA.
The Freedom of Information Act allows me and others to gain access to documents that let us know what government officials and entities are doing. National and state access laws exist so we can know what our tax dollars are paying for, among other things.
When I submit a FOIA I expect the laws in place to followed. If information exists, I am entitled to receive it unless it falls under an exemption. If it does, the agency is supposed to tell me so.
So, with all of these expectations and a lot on the line, it’s important to keep track of your requests and stay on top of them, no matter how frustrating or hard it may be.
And hey, don’t just take my word for it, here are a couple examples of how doing just this has recently paid off for me.
Save a copy
A FOIA request from 2010 came back into play for me last week. Yes, 2010 was a couple of years ago, but the recent IRS allegations regarding possible “anti-tea-party” policies being employed had me searching my GMail inbox.
A friend was applying for nonprofit status for a constitutional law organization in Columbus, Ohio. While going through the process he received a letter from the IRS asking for more information, including an answer to the following question: "Please explain in detail your organization's involvement with the Tea Party."
He had concerns that the IRS may have been employing an "anti-tea-party" policy and contacted me. As a journalist, I was curious.
I wanted to know if this was happening to other people applying for tax-exempt status and if the IRS was implementing any sort of policy that would hinder an organization from gaining tax-exempt status.
I drafted a FOIA request and sent it along. I received several letters from the IRS, stating it would need more time to find the information I was asking for. Finally a response came in the mail saying it did not have any documents responsive to my request.
I set the FOIA aside and moved on to other stories. But, after reading the Treasury Inspector General report released recently and reviewing my FOIA request, I now have more questions.
The IG report says there were reports compiled identifying tea party groups. There was even a "Be on the Look Out" list developed.
Did the agency do it's due diligence to find documents responsive to my request? I have made calls to the contact person listed on my FOIA letter but have yet to hear back. I also am re-submitting the original request to the IRS.
If I wouldn’t have made a scanned copy and emailed it to myself, I may not have been able to go back to this FOIA.
It can be tough but following through on requests is key. At WPTV, we recently were able to add new information to a story that was more than a year old because of information we found on a jail visit video. We gained access to the video from a request that was more than a year old.
At least once a month I called the jail and asked about the request. Finally, after changes in positions at the department and a little bit of a runaround, I received the taped jail conversation in the mail.
We watched it and learned that one of the inmates that escaped used sign language to tell his girlfriend, who picked him up after he escaped, that he was going to get out.
It became a great follow-up story for our viewers with new information regarding the case.
It can be hard, especially when you are working on multiple stories at once, but when you receive an FOIA or information request back, review the documents as soon as you can. Just because you received documents back, it doesn’t mean they are the correct ones or are complete.
Check to see if there is anything missing. If so, did the agency claim an exemption? If it is missing, there should be specific reason it is not included and you should ask them to tell you why.
There have been several instances where I have received documents in the mail and assumed they were what I requested. One time, the documents were meant for another reporter at a nearby newspaper. It was related to a similar topic I had submitted a request for, but was for a completely different story.
Ask for specific exemptions
When information is not included, make sure they tell you why. Ask for the exemption and ask them to be specific.
This will help you know where they are coming from and if you are going to appeal or question their decision, it helps you find possible case law to back up your reasoning.
Detail of charges
If they are going to charge you make sure they tell you what the charges cover.
Do not just accept a letter with an amount. Ask them to break down the cost for you. Sometimes agencies are using very rough estimates. This is fine if it is just that; an estimate. But if you are presented with concrete charges, tell them you want a detailed explanation for them.
Lynn Walsh in the Investigative Producer at WPTV, NewsChannel 5 in West Palm Beach, Florida. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. Follow her on Twitter and on Tumblr.