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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Major CA Public Records Decision on "Private" E-mails of Governmental Officials

A Santa Clara County (CA) Superior Court judge has issued an opinion that could have wide ranging effect on how governmental and elected officials communicate about public business.  If the opinion stands up on appeal, officials will be obligated to turn over public records that are stored on their private handheld devices (as text or other electronic messages) and in their private (non-governmental) e-mail accounts. 

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Hospital Inspection Reports Now Online

The Association of Health Care Journalists has launched a new site allowing any member of the public to conduct a search for certain federal inspection reports related to acute-care and critical access hospitals since January 1, 2011. This is, of course, a welcome development in terms of access to this data which was formerly accessible only by submitting a FOIA to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)

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California Public Records Act Expert Terry Franke Shares Insights

The Sacramento Bee has run a very informative interview with Terry Franke -- co-founder and general counsel of Californians Aware.  Among his insights: California's court created deliberative process exemption has resulted in more documents being marked "draft" in order to create a presumption that supports withholding.  So, rather than simply arguing that releasing a record would interfere with an elected or other government official's ability to reach a decision without undue negative influence (i.e., the "deliberative process"), Franke notes that governments now go out of their way to label documents as drafts so as to protect them from release. Read the full interview here.

"Citizens Only" FOIA Restriction Heard by Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court heard arguments in a case challenging Virginia's "citizens only" Freedom of Information provision yesterday.  According to news accounts (including this one from The New York Times), Justices were skeptical of petitioner arguments that the clause -- which limits the disclosure of Virginia public records to "citizens of the Commonwealth" only -- was unconstitutional. No matter what the Court decides, "citizens only" provisions are few and far between and seldom enforced.  

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Bay Citizen Demonstrates Method for Researching Hospital District Boards

Wonderful piece in The Bay Citizen on researching local hospital district boards.  The piece is by Jennifer Gollan and Katharine Mieszkowski.  Read it carefully for good tips on the research methods used to tackle local oversight and governance board research.  Here's our exegesis:

  • Conflict of Interest statements matter -- Members of many local boards and commissions are required to file these forms.  Often overlooked, they can help tie in family members or businesses to contracts approved by the local board of commission.  An example from The Bay Citizen piece -- local bank CEO who sits on a hospital district board and reported owning stock in his bank's parent company worth upwards of $1 million while the local bank collected $1.2 million in fees from the hospital district.  How did they find out -- the local bank CEO reported his stock ownership on his conflict of interest form.
  • Relationships matter -- As illustrated in the example above, a key to this type of research method is knowing how the members of the board or commission you are studying relate to the vendors receiving contracts.  Keep in mind that human nature applies -- people more readily do business with people they already know.
  • Contracts and minutes matter -- Boards and commissions keep a written record of their meetings which will, at a minimum, record how members voted and what they voted on.  Some will even produce a video or audio record.  Expert tip:  Capture the minutes (either by download or by scanning the paper copies)  and run them through an optical character recognition software (like Adobe) and they become word searchable.
  • Know the regulators -- Boards and commissions are remote islands of government but not completely islands unto themselves.  In its piece, The Bay Citizen cited a California State Auditor report and noted that the hospital district boards it studied were also monitored (albeit loosely) by county-based entities known as Local Agency Formation Commissions.  This is a California-only regulatory set-up but the point is the same -- check the set-up where you are doing the research because there should be some outside review of the local board apparatus.

California Judges Required to Post Conflict of Interest Statements Online

California's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) ruled this week that state judges are not exempt from the online filing of conflict of interest statements. Judges and other statewide officeholders have been required for decades to file California Form 700 but the California Judges Association has been fighting for two years to get its members exempted from a regulation requiring that the forms be filed online. For a good (and brief) summary of the judicial Form 700 issue read the Sacramento Bee.

For a complete list of which officials file with the FPPC, access this page at the Commission.

Tracking Overseas Corporate Registrations

There are a number of resources available to researchers trying to determine if a company has a corporate registration in a foreign country. Companies House is the official company registrar in the UK and has been since 1844.  The Companies House site allows users to search for and download corporate records for companies registered in the UK and offers a set of links to its counterparts in a number of countries, mostly in the EU.  

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Use for Federal, State and Local Government Site Search

Researchers looking specifically for government documents should add to their repertoire.  This site, billed as the "U.S. Government's official search engine," is extremely useful when conducting a broad-based search for specific mentions inside of government records including minutes, staff reports or agency memoranda. 

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