The Road to Rep. Aaron Schock's Resignation As Told By Public Records

Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock resigned today following a steady drip of revelations about ethical improprieties with his congressional and campaign spending practices.  The news investigations into Rep. Schock over recent weeks provide special insight into a number of public records research strategies and illustrate the value of those records to demonstrate how a public official has problems with wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars.  

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Michigan FOIA Laws Reformed to Improve Access to Public Records

Under a new Michigan law effective July 1, 2015, requestors of public records submitted under Michigan's Freedom of Information Act will be better protected against excessive fees and delays.  The law will improve access to Michigan's public records in several key ways, including:

  • Upon request, agencies must provide records by e-mail or other electronic non-paper formats where possible.  
  • Copy costs for paper documents will be capped at $0.10/page.
  • Public agencies would be subject to increased court-ordered fines if an agency is found to have unlawfully denied, delayed or overcharged for a request.

For more, see the bill text of HB 4001, and this coverage in the Detroit Free Press.  

Obscure Federal Database of Wine Labels Used to Solve Mysterious Disappearance of Award-Winning Wine

A recent investigation by The Arizona Republic utilized a little-known federal database of wine, beer and spirit labels to help solve the mysterious disappearance of an award-winning wine. The U.S. Department of the Treasury Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) Public COLA Registry (Certificates of Label Approval) allows the public to search for wine, beer and spirit labels applied for by alcoholic beverage manufacturers. 

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Public Records Access Outside of the United States

Recent press coverage of ties between a Mexican company with major public works contracts and the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto demonstrates that public records are useful in many international research applications. Here's a primer on how to find records internationally. 

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Twitter Now Searchable Back to 2006

This week Twitter announced that all public Tweets are now indexed and searchable back to 2006.  Until now, searching on Twitter's interface returned recent results from within about the last week, but searching for older Tweets required using a third-party service, such as Topsy.  While third-party services are still helpful tools for searching deleted Tweets and other advanced analyses, this is a welcome addition to Twitter's use as a research tool.  Read more in this excellent article in Wired, and more about the technical details behind the index on Twitter's Engineering Blog.

Federal Contractor Misconduct Database

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) maintains a useful tool for researchers.  The organization’s Federal Contractor Misconduct Database includes information on federal contractors with histories of contract fraud, environmental, ethics or labor violations.  The database, which includes records of misconduct involving top federal contractors between 1995 and the present, is compiled from a number of sources including documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), court records and official government reports. Use the database to find instances of misconduct (organized by contractor) and a total amount paid in misconduct-related fines or legal settlements. 

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Quick Ways to Check a Stock Broker's Background

 A Liz Moyer short in this weekend's Wall Street Journal called out the easiest ways to check a registered broker dealer's background.  To see what is on file use the BrokerCheck tool on the website.  The Moyer short also notes the advisability of checking with state-level broker regulators since BrokerCheck doesn't capture every investor complaint.  A list of state regulators can be found here.

Keep in mind that quick and thorough seldom amount to the same thing so be aware that additional checks might need to be conducted (e.g., lawsuit, lien and judgment searches).

Private Equity Fund Fees -- Exempt from Disclosure?

Recent focus on the fees and expenses charged to clients by private equity firms has caused a ripple on the public records pool as these firms work to keep what they charge public pension funds under wraps.  The Wall Street Journal has reported on its efforts to obtain fee and expense data and the resistance the paper has met.  This is not the first, nor will it be the last battle that plays our around whether this type of information is in fact secret under trade secrets exemptions contained in state open records laws.  Read the WSJ story here.

California City and County Financial Data Online

The California State Controller has posted a new data tool that will help researchers with an interest in municipal finance.  The new By the Numbers tool is drawn from the Controller’s annual financial transaction report compiling municipal revenue, spending and asset information.  The tool allows comparisons between cities and also allows raw data export and will come in handy for researchers looking at city and county budgets.

Office of Government Information Services Resolves Disputes, Guides Requesters & Agencies through FOIA Process

Established by the OPEN Government Act of 2007 and opened in 2009, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) oversees federal agencies’ compliance with FOIA, serving as a mediator between citizens requesting records and the agencies responsible for furnishing them. A glance at OGIS’ case logs shows that they address the full variety of roadblocks one might encounter in the FOIA process.

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