FEMA Charges Newspaper $210,000 For Public Records

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency is charging a newspaper $209,990 for records documenting the agency’s response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a price deemed “absurd” by one lawmaker.

The Advocate of Baton Rouge must pay that amount before FEMA will turn over copies of more than 2 million pages of documents relating to inspection and maintenance of government-issued trailers and mobile homes, the newspaper reported yesterday.

FEMA also gave the newspaper 10 days to pay or said it would consider the request withdrawn.

“The first 100 pages are free,” a FEMA lawyer informed The Advocate. “The duplication cost for 2,099,900 pages will be $0.10 per page for photocopying.”

Agency spokesman James McIntyre said FEMA charged fees for public records when a request is so large or complex that staffers must be pulled from their regular duties to compile the information.

“FEMA has determined that the American taxpayers should not bear the burden of the costs to produce the copies,” McIntyre wrote yesterday in an e-mail to the Associated Press.

The Advocate said it appeared none of the records it requested were stored on computers. McIntyre said FEMA was searching its databases to determine if any of the files were electronic.

“If so, that will decrease some of the costs,” he said. “Also, FEMA would like to work with the newspaper to better define its request so that it does not require the extensive man hours and copy cost to fulfill,” McIntyre wrote.

Carl Redman, executive editor of The Advocate, said FEMA had “stalled and delayed” since the newspaper first requested the documents in September 2006.

“They’ve raised the bar so high, it’s impossible to get information,” Redman said. “The idea that any newspaper, let alone a family-owned newspaper, has $200,000 to look at copies of documents is ludicrous.”

The Advocate is requesting copies of contracts, billing invoices and other records associated with the trailers and mobile homes that have sheltered tens of thousands of victims of the 2005 hurricanes.

The newspaper requested the records after complaints surfaced that FEMA trailers were contaminated by hazardous fumes. Recent tests on hundreds of FEMA trailers and mobile homes found formaldehyde levels that were, on average, about five times higher than what people are exposed to in most modern homes.

Redman said the newspaper would continue negotiating with FEMA.

“If they wanted to give us the information, they would and they would do it a timely manner,” Redman said. “Obviously, they don’t want to give it to us and they don’t want to do it timely.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., called FEMA’s response “an absurd price for the truth.”

“That FEMA would respond that these documents are not available electronically is, at best, unlikely given the vast amount of information the government now stores electronically,” Landrieu added.

Lucy Dalgish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said FEMA frequently waived fees for requests made under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

“FEMA should be embarrassed ? $209,000 is nuts,” Dalgish told The Advocate. “They’re trying to use what they can in the law to make your life miserable and make sure no one scrutinizes them.”

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