U.S. Border Patrol wins IRE’s first-ever award for withholding information

11 07 2013

The Society of Professional Journalists and its Utah chapter are not the only groups using “awards” to spotlight agencies that withhold information from the public.

Investigative Reporters and Editors has created a “Golden Padlock” award to highlight government agencies and officials that stymie efforts at open government and transparency.

IRE, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving investigative journalism, awarded the first Golden Padlock to the U.S. Border Patrol, for holding back details on shootings involving its agents along the border with Mexico that resulted in several deaths.

“The U.S. Border Patrol’s resounding silence on fatal shootings involving its agents epitomizes the kind of intransigence for which this award was created,” IRE President David Cay Johnston said in a statement issued by the group. “Accountability is an essential element of any public agency, but all the more so when its agents are empowered to fire weapons that kill. The Border Agency appears to have forgotten that duty.”

Other nominees for the award included the New Jersey Transit Authority for giving reporters a completely blacked-out copy of its hurricane-response plan; and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which took five years to produce a requested document on Lyme disease.

IRE also added the U.S. Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder for revelations that the department was monitoring journalists’ phone records.

Advertisements




Connecticut lawmakers pass bill to keep murder records secret

7 06 2013

This may sound familiar to Utahns: A bill drastically changing government-records laws is secretly drafted and rushed through with little time for public comment.

In a scenario reminiscent of the HB477 debacle, Connecticut lawmakers passed a bill that makes records of murder cases private. The bill, which was drafted in secret by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s staff, the state’s top prosecutor and leaders in the legislature, was a response to the Sandy Hook shootings, where a gunman killed 20 students and six teachers before committing suicide.

The bill, which did not go through the public hearing process and was passed at the end of the legislature’s session, exempts photos, film or digital images depicting homicide victims, as well as 911 calls describing the condition of a victim. It also shifts the burden of proof from the state to the requester, who has to make the case why a record should be released.

Malloy said the purpose of the bill was to protect the families from seeing the crime photos on the Internet. Some of the victims’ families support the move.

“I’m fully supportive of an open and transparent government, but I can’t understand how distributing graphic photos of murdered teachers and children serves any purpose other than causing our families more pain,” Dean Pinto, whose 6-year-old son, Jack, was killed in the school shooting, was quoted in reports as saying.

The law initially only dealt with the Sandy Hook case, but was expanded to cover all homicides in the Nutmeg State, which sets a bad precedent, critics warn.

“What they’re doing here is protecting the family … but it becomes a slippery slope,” said David Cuillier, president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists. “Anything that makes someone uncomfortable, the government can make secret.”

H/t to the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press.





Pictures of Osama bin Laden’s corpse to remain secret, judges say

28 05 2013

If you find pictures purporting to be those of Osama bin Laden’s body after he was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs, they’re most likely frauds.

The government is not letting anyone in the public see them.

A three-judge panel of the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that the government was justified in denying Freedom of Information Act requests for the photos and videos taken after the raid, including bin Laden’s burial at sea, because it would endanger national security. The court found that the Defense Department and the CIA properly classified the documents as private.

“This is not a case in which the declarants are making predictions about the consequences of releasing any images,” the court wrote. “Rather, they are predicting the consequences of releasing an extraordinary set of images, ones that depict American military personnel burying the founder and leader of [al-Qauida].”

Judicial Watch, a government watchdog group, requested the pictures shortly after President Barrack Obama announced that commandos killed bin Laden in his Abbottabad, Pakistan, hideout, ending a manhunt that stretched out almost 10 years. The group sought the pictures and videos in order to complete the public record of the demise of the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

But the court accepted the government’s position that releasing the photos and videos would enflame al-Qaida and other extremists, possibly putting Americans at risk. It noted the effect Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad, the founder of Islam, had on radicals. The government also warned that releasing the images used to identify bin Laden through facial-recognition software could reveal intelligence sources or methods.

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton denounced the decision as “craven” and said the group is weighing its next legal steps.

“The courts need to stop rubber-stamping this administration’s improper secrecy,” Fitton said. “There is no provision in the Freedom of Information Act that allows documents to be kept secret because their release might offend our terrorist enemies.”

h/t to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

 





U.S. Supreme Court: States can withhold documents from nonresidents

29 04 2013

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision announced Monday, stated that there is no constitutional right for people to obtain public records from states they don’t live in.

According to the Reporters’ Commitee for Freedom of the Press, the high court upheld a provision in Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act that states non-residents cannot file records requests.

“This Court has repeatedly made clear that there is no constitutional right to obtain all the information provided by FOIA laws,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court.

The suit was brought by Mark J. McBurney and Roger W. Hurlbert. McBurney, a former Virginia resident who moved to Rhode Island, attempted to obtain information on child-support payments from his ex-wife. Hurlbert, a California businessman, was seeking property-tax records for his business.

The pair are planning to lobby Virginia to repeal the residents-only clause in its records act.

The Society of Professional Journalists and other open-government groups filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the pair’s lawsuit.





Freedom of Information Act helps inmate find evidence of possible fraud in criminal trial

19 03 2013

For Alfonso Moya-Breton, the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) may be his ticket to getting out of prison sooner.

As The Salt Lake Tribune’s Brooke Adams reported, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell was wrong when she refused to consider Moya-Breton’s contention that his attorney didn’t tell him about a plea deal that could have shaved six years off his sentences for drug offenses.

Moya-Breton was able to find the evidence using FOIA as part of his effort to appeal his 30-year prison sentence.

Moya-Breton said his attorney, Ed Brass, had told him that there was no offer of a plea agreement, but the letter from Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Elggren to Brass stated that Moya-Breton’s sentence would be reduced if he would “accept responsibility.”

Campbell had ruled the letter was irrelevant because the issue had already been addressed in previous appeals, but the appellate court reversed her ruling.

“Unfortunately, the district court did not distinguish the motion’s fraud allegation … from its other assertions,” the appeals court said. “That is a problem.”





Obama administration using security concerns to hold back public information

12 03 2013

When President Barack Obama took office, open-government advocates were hopeful his administration would be more transparent than his predecessor’s.

While Obama did restore the presumption of openness in public records, reversing former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s directive to deny records requests if there was even the slightest way to legally do so, his administration hasn’t been as forthcoming as some would like.

As The First Amendment Center reports, an Associated Press analysis shows that his administration denied about one-third of the requests it received in 2012, a slight increase over 2011’s denial rate. One of the more common reasons for denying records or censoring them was national security issues.

The AP study noted it could not determine if the administration was abusing the national-security exemption in the federal Freedom of Information Act or if people were asking for more security-related documents, such as policies on the use of unmanned drones against American citizens overseas.

The AP did find that Obama’s administration was making more use of the “deliberative process” exemption, which allows government to hold back documents related to the behind-the-scenes decision-making process.