Tag Archives: Freedom of Information Act

The “Freedom Of Information Act” (FOIA) Turns 51 Years Old

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flag_and_fireworks_575 FOIA Photo biy US Dept. of Transportation

 Photo by US Dept. of Transportation

“THE PROJECT ON GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT”

“What Is It and Why Does It Matter?”

“Happy birthday to the Freedom of Information Act! Originally enacted in 1966, FOIA created a way for all citizens to obtain information from the federal government.

It requires federal agencies to release any requested information that is not covered by its nine exemptions, and requires agencies to make basic information about their policies available to the public.

The FOIA Improvement Act included some great updates to the landmark access-to-information law, like improved requirements for agencies to proactively post documents online and a new standard of transparency.

But what is FOIA?

Originally enacted in 1966, FOIA created a way for all citizens to obtain information from the federal government. It requires federal agencies to release any requested information that is not covered by its nine exemptions, and requires agencies to make basic information about their policies available to the public. FOIA is a tool commonly used by researchers, historians, journalists, and the public to discover information about possible environmental contamination near their property, the safety of consumer products, and more, and it is being used more than ever before, with almost 800,000 requests submitted in 2016. Many of POGO’s own investigations rely on documents we obtain through FOIA.

While there are still problems with the law that must be addressed and continued threats against it, today is about celebrating and looking back on the impact it has had so far. The Sunshine In Government Initiative launched a Tumblr last year that rounds up news stories that wouldn’t have been possible without the landmark transparency law, and journalists continue to use FOIA every day.”

http://www.pogo.org/blog/2017/07/foia-turns-51-what-is-it-and-why-does-it-matter.html

 

 

 

 

Federal Government Contracts Need to Be Posted Online

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Open Contracting

“THE PROJECT ON GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT’

“Last Week Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) introduced the “Contractor Accountability and Transparency Act of 2017” (S. 651), which POGO and eight other bipartisan groups supported.

The bill will expand the contracting information available on USASpending.gov (which now only offers summaries of contracts), make the contract information more accessible and readable, and help reduce Freedom of Information Act backlogs.

In fiscal year 2016, the federal government spent $472 billion for the acquisition of goods and services. In order to rein in spending and regain public faith in the contracting system, the government must provide public access to information on the contracting process. Posting copies of contracts—rather than summary data that offers little, if any, insights into the goods and services being purchased—is essential to learning about government activities and eliminating waste, fraud, abuse, and substandard performance.

When contract information is publicly accessible, genuine competition will increase, and the government will be better situated to get better deals, especially as budget constraints take hold. Simply stated, the government will be in a much improved position to leverage its robust buying power.

Despite concerns some have voiced about posting contracts, it can be accomplished without compromising national security information or contractors’ proprietary commercial or financial information.

In fact, many states have already adopted a more transparent contracting system without negatively impacting their ability to do business with contractors. According to a recent Project On Government Oversight report, at least 33 states proactively post some contracts online. That means two-thirds of the states are ahead of the federal government when it comes to contract transparency.

For many years, groups and Members of Congress have worked in a bipartisan manner to enhance transparency in the area of federal contract spending. In 2006, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), with the support of Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Tom Carper (D-DE), and Barack Obama (D-IL), introduced a bill that brought federal spending out of the Dark Ages—the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 (FFATA). That bill was signed into law (see the Notes section) by President George W. Bush, and it provided the foundation for USASpending.org and learning more about federal spending.

In 2008, all four Senators teamed up again to introduce the Strengthening Transparency and Accountability in Federal Spending Act of 2008, which proposed to enhance federal spending transparency. The new bill was intended to expand the scope of information that would become publicly available, including details about the contract bids and the award’s financial terms. Additionally, the bill would have posted searchable copies of “all contracts, subcontracts, purchase orders, task orders, lease agreements and assignments, and delivery orders.”

The 2008 election, pitting Senator Obama against Senator McCain, essentially caused the bill to die in the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. But that wasn’t the last we heard about posting contracts online.

In addition to Senator McCaskill, Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) has also been working on the issue.  He not only cosponsored the McCaskill bill, but since 2010 and most recently on March 14, 2017, has also introduced the Public Online Information Act, which will make information from all three branches of government available on the internet, including contracts.

With annual contract spending bouncing back up to nearly $500 billion, oversight of that spending is crucial. Groups from across the political spectrum support efforts to increase disclosure of federal contracts to improve transparency and accountability in federal spending. Posting contracts online should have happened years ago. We will see if the 115th Congress is serious about transparency and accountability in federal spending. If it is, passing Senator McCaskill’s and Senator Tester’s bills will be a good start.”

http://www.pogo.org/blog/2017/03/contracts-need-to-be-posted-online-mccaskill-sunshine-transparency.html

 

 

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Fee Waivers Protected

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Altus_FOIA

Image: Altus_FOIA

“THE PROJECT ON GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT”

“Preventing federal agencies from using fees as a weapon against public access to government information.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit unanimously protected the Freedom of Information Act’s (FOIA) public interest fee waiver and news media fee classification.

Cause of Action, an advocacy group promoting transparency and accountability,submitted a FOIA request to the Federal Trade Commission about changes to “product-endorsement guides” and “documents concerning the FTC’s history of granting public-interest fee waivers.” The FTC categorized Cause of Action as commercial and refused to grant its request for a public interest fee waiver or, in the alternative, to be classified as a member of the media. Cause of Action then filed a lawsuit.

The district court agreed with the FTC’s FOIA policy, and Cause of Action appealed the district court ruling. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned the district court decision and remanded the case to the trial court with new criteria for interpreting FOIA.

Cause of Action primarily wanted to receive a public interest fee waiver, which would waive all fees associated with its FOIA requests. The district court found Cause of Action needed to reach a “wide audience” to receive a public interest waiver, but the appellate court disagreed. In fact, according to the appellate court, “there is nothing in the statute that specifies the number of outlets a requester” needs to reach “to contribute significantly to the public understanding.”

The D.C. Circuit Court also cited a Second Circuit ruling that stated organizations only need to reach “a reasonably broad audience of persons interested in the subject” to be in the public interest. The type and number of outlets the requested information would reach are irrelevant.

The appellate court also found that the FTC was wrong to deny Cause of Action a public interest waiver concerning the FTC’s policy regarding FOIA waivers. The FTC argued that because Cause of Action would be the “primary beneficiary,” it could not be in the public interest category. However, the court ruled that FOIA requests only need to “enlighten more than just the individual requester.” It also ruled that the request was not for commercial gain because it did not increase Cause of Action’s “commerce, trade, or profit.”

If its request did not meet the requirements for a public interest waiver, Cause of Action had asked to be classified as a member of the news media. Unlike the public interest category, agencies may charge organizations categorized as news media duplication costs for documents over 100 pages. The appellate court defined “news media” as a “person or entity” who “gathers information” to create “a distinct work” for distribution to an audience. It also said entities who only partner with media to disseminate information are also news media.

The appellate court ruled that the media category focuses “on the nature of therequester, not its request.” Once an organization is categorized as news media, it should continue to be classified as such regardless of the content of its FOIA requests.

Additionally, organizations only need to show a “firm plan” to make information available to the public. They do not need to actively disseminate this information.

The FOIA protections reaffirmed by the appellate court came soon after an important case involving the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), whichsubmitted a FOIA request for three Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) databases and “broader electronic data maintained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.”

In its ruling on TRAC, the U.S. District Court of D.C. stated that if organizations establish that they “intend and have the ability to disseminate new research to the public,” than they are news media. This ruling also supports the decision in Cause of Action v. FTCestablishing that a news media organization can remain classified as such in perpetuity unless it changes “its research activities in the future.”

The Project On Government Oversight frequently advocates reforming FOIA’s fee waivers. In a 2011 public comment on FOIA, POGO, along with Public Citizen, criticized the chilling effect fees have upon requesters, and in 2014 POGO asked Congress to reform FOIA fees by supporting the FOIA Improvement Act.

Ultimately, the court decisions in favor of Cause of Action and TRAC will make it easier for traditional and non-traditional media and public interest organizations, like POGO, to receive FOIA fee waivers. As a result, more information will be disseminated to the public, increasing government transparency and accountability.”

http://www.pogo.org/blog/2015/09/foia-fee-waivers-protected.html