Speeding Up Response To FoIA Requests p. 9

By: Debra Gersh Hernandez Attorney General Janet Reno orders Justice Department
employees be rated on how quickly and efficiently they
handle public queries; journalism groups praise her action sp.

ALL JUSTICE DEPARTMENT employees who play any role in handling Freedom of Information Act requests, for the first time ever, will be rated on how quickly, thoroughly and efficiently they handle the request.
The order, issued by Attorney General Janet Reno, will make such efficient handling part of the staffers' job descriptions and it will be considered in their job evaluations.
"Timely performance of our responsibilities to FoIA/PA [Privacy Act] requesters requires more than the efforts of FoIA personnel; it requires the cooperation of all non-FoIA personnel who receive, transmit and review potentially releasable information," Reno wrote in her memo outlining the plan.
"Our analysis of the historic FoIA/PA backlog problem in the department has shown that steps taken before the actual processing stage by FoIA personnel contribute to significant delay in responding to requesters," she continued.
Each component head ? including the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Marshalls Service and Immigration and Naturalization Service ? was directed to develop new, mandatory performance standards for all employees, even non-FoIA personnel, involved in processing the requests.
In the past, only those staffers who processed requests full time were held up to performance standards and graded on how well they did.
"I want to emphasize the fact that we all have a role in making FoIA work," Reno stated.
Journalists praised the action, but also pointed out that it does not necessarily mean more information will be forthcoming.
Society of Professional Journalists president Reginald Stuart was so impressed by Reno's order ? "I almost fainted when I read it," he said ? that he sent her a letter commending the action.
"This is a major move forward by a key federal agency," said Stuart, assistant news editor for Knight-Ridder in Washington. "It's recognition that FoIA is important to restoring the public's trust in government.
"I hope other agencies will quickly follow suit and make FoIA compliance one of the yardsticks by which an employee's performance is measured," he added.
"I don't know anything on the horizon which prompted this, which is good. A good decision about making government more responsive should not be precipitated by necessity but by plain, old common sense. Maybe there was something lurking around that we don't know about, but this seems to be a plain, old, good decision based on common sense."
Stuart said that Reno "deserves a lot of praise" for this action.
"This says that everybody up and down the line is responsible for making it work," he said, adding, "It doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get more information out of government, just more action out of government."
Stuart's accolades were mirrored by SPJ Freedom of Information chair Lucy Dalglish, an attorney with Dorsey & Whitney in Minneapolis.
"I think it's great," she said. "There are some things the Justice Department has done that are not wonderful, but one thing Gen. Reno has been good at is coming out and saying openness is valuable."
Dalglish pointed out that this action can be traced back to meetings in 1992, when journalists met with then-new administration officials to discuss access to information issues.
One suggestion was to make FoIA compliance part of someone's job description.
"I think she has done a lot just by setting a tone," Dalglish said of Reno.
There was one disappointment about the order for Dalglish, however, and that was the lack of media attention.
"I am disappointed in the way the media has handled it," she said of the FoIA order, which was announced in a news release from the Justice Department. "I have not seen a darn thing about it [in the media].
"Journalists have to do a better job commending people when they do a good job. This was worth at least a mention," she said.
Dalglish conceded that quicker action on FoIA requests does not necessarily mean more information will be released, but she said, "It's still progress. At least now, if they reject you faster, you can act sooner to appeal, to file a lawsuit."
At least one reporter, fresh from a two-year FoIA battle whose appeal is still pending, was not quite as thrilled by the news.
Elliot Jaspin and Larry Lipman of Cox Newspapers filed an FoIA request two years ago, seeking the names of doctors receiving payments from Medicare.
They were told that revealing the doctors' names was not in the public interest and could embarrass the doctors or hurt their practices.
After filing a lawsuit, they were able to get computer tapes with payment records from six states in which Cox owns newspapers. The doctors' names were encrypted, but by tracing ZIP codes ? "an arduous process," according to Jaspin ? the reporters were able to uncover doctors' identities.
What they found was at least 72 doctors in six states grossing over $1 million each from treating Medicare patients in 1992, the most recent year for which data were available.
"I would strongly argue that's in the public interest," Jaspin said.
Their series led to a call for congressional hearings from House committee chairmen with jurisdiction over Medicare.
Jaspin said he figured that doing this story would kill two birds with one stone: Report on the issue; and overturn a 16-year-old Florida injunction barring release of the names of doctors receiving Medicare payments.
"Cox attorneys thought we'd have a pretty good shot at it," said Jaspin. "I was 100% wrong."
The case is pending in U.S. District Court in Washington, where Cox continues to fight for release of the doctors' names.
"We're still in court, but it doesn't look promising," Jaspin said. "We're not going to be able to find out the names of doctors paid by public funds."
Opposing the release is the Health Care Financing Administration, which oversees Medicare.
"HCFA filed several briefs saying there was no public interest served by knowing which doctors were being paid by public money. They said to disclose doctors' names would only embarrass them," Jaspin said.
HCFA legal briefs also argue that the doctors are not government contractors.
"The FoIA request was filed April 13, 1993. They turned us down on Sept. 14. That was really incredibly fast," he said.
"What's even more hilarious, we appealed directly to Janet Reno," Jaspin said. "Through an aide, she said it is a matter under litigation and she would not say one thing or another.
"The Justice Department position on this whole issue is really off the wall," he added. "If she is so goddamned interested in making [information in the] public interest available, you think she would join us in working to overturn this court injunction instead of fighting us on this."
?(Attorney General Janet Reno) [Photo & Caption]


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here