By: Mark Fitzgerald
IF THERE IS one rule of thumb for getting documents from a freedom of information office, says the Security and Exchange Commission’s top FoI officer Gayla Sessoms, it is, “Be nice.”
However, when a reporter asked Sessoms if enlisting a congressman also helps in getting records from the SEC, she had a quick reply.
“At the SEC, it does. To the extent we get requests from congressmen, yes, it does expedite things,” Sessoms told a session at the 19th annual conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors, held recently in St. Louis.
Sessoms and Richard Huff, co-director of the Office of Information and Privacy for the U.S. Department of Justice, provided IRE conference goers with an FOI officer’s viewpoint of an investigative reporter’s paper chase.
Among their dos and don’ts:
? Be specific. “One reporter asked for all the material relating to the government’s Dalkon Shield [birth control device liability probe] . . . . It amounted to 87 crates,” Huff said.
Not surprisingly, the search seemed to take forever. But a year later, the reporter got all he really needed by narrowing his request to a single document: the prosecution memo.
? Don’t waste time with letters from lawyers.
“What I find sad is getting a 12-page letter citing all these cases ? some of which have been overturned ? and all I can think is this document took 24 hours to produce and at $250 an hour, all I can think is someone wasted a lot of money,” Huff said.
“I’ve never had an appeals letter that told me something about the law I didn’t know,” he continued. “Don’t tell me about the law, tell me facts. Tell me, ‘Don’t you know Freddie Jones is dead and you are still protecting his privacy?’ “
? Take advantage of the increasing high-tech access to public documents.
Sessoms notes that many corporate documents are now available on the commission’s EDGAR computer system. And in a pilot project, EDGAR is now available on the Internet. To access, call (202) 628-2044.
? Request the same document at multiple agencies.
“I don’t think that’s a waste of time,” said Huff.
Huff explained that roughly a third of government agencies ? mostly the smaller ones ? routinely respond to all FOI requests within the statutory 10-day limit. Another third take about a month and a final third take more than 30 days.
Unfortunately, the FBI is the slowest federal agency.
“The FBI has asked for more [FoI fulfullment] personnel for six years running,” Huff said. The Justice Department has supported the additional people, while the Office of Management and Budget ? under a mandate to shrink federal employment by 250,000 people ? opposes any expansion.
? Be aware of recent exceptions that might help you jump the FOI queue.
In a February order, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno approved expedited FOI treatment for requests in which “there exists widespread and exceptional media interest in the requested information and expedited processing is warranted because the information sought involves possible questions about the government’s integrity which affect public confidence.”
Remember, though, that it still amounts to a difficult standard, Huff said.
“[Justice spokesman] Carl Stern has said that since this rule has been promulgated only one requst has been approved for consideration and that one met only the first category,” said Huff, who added the request was then rejected. About eight to a dozen requests have been made for expedited treatment, Huff estimated.