Ferguson's Strategy Regarding Journalists: Charge Insane Fees For FOIA Requests

from the filing-charges dept

Say what you want, but one thing has become abundantly clear since the whole Ferguson debacle began: the people running and policing that city aren’t interested in your concerns. Throughout this entire process, the city and its police force have obfuscated the facts and people involved in the shooting of a civilian, they have cynically released information and videos when it suits them, and they’ve treated journalists covering the story with the kind of contempt they normally reserve for their own constituents. And now, utilizing a method previously beta-tested by both local and federal law enforcement agencies, they’ve decided the best way to respond to the ongoing outcry is to try to charge insane amounts for FOIA requests.

Officials in Ferguson, Missouri, are charging nearly 10 times the cost of some of their own employees’ salaries before they will agree to turn over files under public records laws about the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. The city has demanded high fees to produce copies of records that, under Missouri law, it could give away free if it determined the material was in the public’s interest to see. Instead, in some cases, the city has demanded high fees with little explanation or cost breakdown.

In one case, it billed The Associated Press $135 an hour — for nearly a day’s work — merely to retrieve a handful of email accounts since the shooting. That fee compares with an entry-level, hourly salary of $13.90 in the city clerk’s office, and it didn’t include costs to review the emails or release them.

Allow that to sink in for a moment and marinade in your brain juices: information that could be given for free if it was of public interest is instead being billed at ridiculously high rates. Does anyone seriously want to argue that more transparency out of the Ferguson government isn’t in the public’s interest? Of course not. This is all about intimidating journalists and trying to put roadblocks in front of likely damning information. Ferguson has a public relations problem in the truest form and their strategy appears to be to freeze out journalists trying to provide information to the public. That won’t win them any friends.

And don’t think that this strategy is used rarely.

The Washington Post was told it would need to pay $200 at minimum for its requests, including city officials’ emails since Aug. 9 discussing Brown’s shooting, citizen complaints against Ferguson officers and Wilson’s personnel file. The website Buzzfeed requested in part emails and memos among city officials about Ferguson’s traffic-citation policies and changes to local elections, but was told it would cost unspecified thousands of dollars to fulfill.

Inquiries about Ferguson’s public records requests were referred to the city’s attorney, Stephanie Karr, who declined to respond to repeated interview requests from the AP since earlier this month. Through a spokesman late Monday, Karr said Missouri law can require fees but she didn’t address why charges specific to the AP’s request were nearly tenfold the lowest salary in the city clerk’s office. Karr said searching emails for key words constitutes “extra computer programming” that can bring added costs.

Searching emails by keyword now equals “programming?” Brilliant! Although I suppose it’s not as egregious as suggesting shooting unarmed civilians equals “policing.”

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Comments on “Ferguson's Strategy Regarding Journalists: Charge Insane Fees For FOIA Requests”

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50 Comments
tqk (profile) says:

Re: They need a search function

Therefore, these extra costs are to cover the cost of hiring programmers to write one on such short notice.

Or, they could just tell their IT guy to do it. I’ve had grepmail here for as long as I can remember. Do mortals (the non-IT-clueful) actually not think that we’ve been doing this sort of stuff forevar!

The biggest problem in IT is how much lazy people have allowed themselves to forget. We have solutions already worked out and proven robust, which are completely ignored when building the new shiny stuff.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: They need a search function

“Or, they could just tell their IT guy to do it.”

You are being WAY too generous with your expectations of competence. These types of discussion often get a little out of hand around here, because so many of us TDites are REAL, professional IT with notably above-average intelligence. Public service IT folks rarely own the skills or wit that we do.

Some other name again says:

Re: So what are you waiting for my comments...

This is hysterical and a point about I hope is automated stuff is, the comment I was complaining about was on point and made sens where as this was pure anger and it got though and the other didn’t.

Mike you need to “upgrade” your terrorist defenses I guess

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re: So what are you waiting for my comments...

This is hysterical and a point about I hope is automated stuff is, the comment I was complaining about was on point and made sens where as this was pure anger and it got though and the other didn’t.

Don’t take it personal…he isn’t trying to stop terrorists, but Steve the spammer who keeps posting his “I love me” links. You look a lot like Steve, so the server gets confused and has to have a human look into whether you are Steve or just someone who looks like him. They usually get it sorted out pretty quickly.

Getting an account usually saves you the grief, because the server then knows that you probably aren’t Steve, but then you have to worry about the guys with wrenches and crowbars going after you for your password (in case you ever forget yours, this will make a lot more sense…Mike pops up the XKCD security comic whenever you forget your password.)

No Use for a Name says:

Re: Failure to understand

Because people are really really dumb,

It was said more than 40 years ago…

Phil Ochs and a better version by Jello biafra and Mojo Nixion

Love Me Love Me Love me I’m a liberal

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u52Oz-54VYw

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQ8ERBr9yKI

A person is good moral and thoughtful, people are imaginary and made up by people with guns.

And most persons are afraid of those people.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Three reasons: 1) Apathy. As long as “it doesn’t affect me”, most folks don’t care. 2) Money talks. Rich people/companies often go to poor areas and hire people to vote the way they want. 3) Control. Most companies force their employees to vote the way they want, regardless of the law. You don’t even have to threaten anyone directly – consider this message from the boss – “I’d love to pass out Christmas bonuses, but if this new law passes/doesn’t pass, I’m afraid there won’t be any money for bonuses.” Guess how employees will vote?

2 and 3 above can mix a bit, and number 1 more than anything. It’s hard to get people to care about anything beyond their little world.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

probably because the whole department of justice is corrupt. So you know what they say. Corruption starts at the top and trickles down. They pick and choose which laws to enforce and which laws to ignore.

The rule of law has become non existant for the most part in America. Only those that are not viewed as the elite or as part of the police thugs are expected to follow the laws those that enforce them do no care to.

Whatever (profile) says:

I have to wonder: Are the Tims happy about anything, ever? You guys both tend to sound really pissed off, like a really loud drunk at a party who just got turned down by the last girl in the room.

In one case, it billed The Associated Press $135 an hour โ€” for nearly a day’s work โ€” merely to retrieve a handful of email accounts since the shooting. That fee compares with an entry-level, hourly salary of $13.90 in the city clerk’s office, and it didn’t include costs to review the emails or release them.

Sort of an unfair comparison. I don’t suspect that they would leave answering such FOIA requests to the lowest paid employee in the place. They also wouldn’t let the resulting dataset out without review. The price is high, but it’s not particularly out of line when you consider what a short term computer “consultant” would charge to do the same work.

For what it’s worth, they can’t just run a keyword search against a bunch of emails and turn it over. That would likely result in relevant emails being missed, and irrelevant or even messages that might get covered as evidence in the investigation getting put out to public. Quite simply, it’s not a two minute job that the lowest paid clerk in the building can do.

I believe you call that a strawman.

I don't normally feed trols says:

Re: whatever TL:DR

In one case, it billed The Associated Press $135 an hour โ€” for nearly a day’s work โ€” merely to retrieve a handful of email accounts since the shooting. That fee compares with an entry-level, hourly salary of $13.90 in the city clerk’s office, and it didn’t include costs to review the emails or release them.

You know that simple math say WTF are you talking about? since 135$ A DAY IS NOT EQUAL TO 135$ AN HOUR DO I HAVE TO KEEP SHOUTING!?

The person putting up a stawman is not him…

It’s you.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You quoted the section in question but missed the most important part:

In one case, it billed The Associated Press $135 an hour โ€” for nearly a day’s work โ€” merely to retrieve a handful of email accounts since the shooting. That fee compares with an entry-level, hourly salary of $13.90 in the city clerk’s office, and it didn’t include costs to review the emails or release them.

That $135 per hour they were demanding, the $2,000? That was just to retrieve the emails, that didn’t include any other costs such as those involved with reviewing them or getting them ready to release.

Reviewing emails to make sure sensitive information didn’t get released? That would take someone skilled and knowledgeable(though even then not $135/hour skilled). Just getting the emails from the system? Minimal skills, minimal knowledge, and most certainly not something more intensive than a $13.90/hour, entry level clerk would be able to handle.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Quite simply, it’s not a two minute job that the lowest paid clerk in the building can do.

Fair enough…now all we need is a FOIA request as to the salary of who actually does the work. Let’s see what they make an hour and bounce it against the $135/hour rate.

If they make better than $100/hour, we call it even.

If they make $20-30/hour, we all get to call “bullshit” and you can issue the forum an apology.

Deal?

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

Incompetence as an excuse for stonewalling

Searching emails by keyword now equals “programming?”

We keep seeing this tactic over and over again by government entities that don’t want to respond to requests. It’s becoming increasingly clear that many of them have deliberately chosen inferior email systems (e.g., Exchange, deployed exclusively by ignorant newbies who don’t know any better) precisely because they make it difficult to respond to such requests and thus provide plausible justification for delays, omissions, and outrageous fees.

This is also why responses are often given with all or most metadata (i.e. message headers) removed and/or on paper: the strategy is to make it as difficult as possible to analyze the data in context and to search it.

Anyone who uses a sensible email system (which of course requires that it runs on Unix or Linux) can respond to such requests with a trivial amount of effort (a) because the mail store is maintained in an open, documented, simple manner that facilitates easy retrieval and searching and (b) because numerous tools exist to extract messages, search messages, process messages, organize messages, redact messages, etc. (A quick glance through the packages available for, let’s say, Debian Linux, reveals the wealth of tools available — and that’s only a portion of the whole.)

I routinely deal with email archives that have 2 to 20 million messages in them and have no problem pulling all messages from a certain data range, or all messages to/from a certain recipient, or all messages with certain keywords in the subject, etc., using no more than the computational resources on laptop — and not a particularly new or powerful one at that. Nor do I have the slightest difficulty stripping attachments or redacting a phone number or any of the other routine things that might be done in the process of responding to a FOIA request or similar. This is trivial stuff that should be well within the reach of anyone with even just a few years’ experience, provided that they haven’t crippled themselves with a junk email system and junk tools and proprietary formats.

But, as I said, I think many of these agencies have deliberately done just that — crippled themselves — because it provides cover for their unwillingness to hand the public’s documents over to the public.

David says:

Re: Re: Incompetence as an excuse for stonewalling

If you have a clue what you are doing. Most users of office applications don’t.

WYSIWYG applications principally have the disadvantage of pitching to a “who needs manuals?” crowd. The programmers might start out structuring menus and stuff to correspond with a structured approach of creating documents. Then the Human Interface Group surveys what actually gets used frequently and groups it separately. Or the computer sees itself what is frequently in use and spews it to the top.

As a result, the interface then is strongly organized for favoring cluelessness, no longer reflecting any significant amount of inherent logic.

You have to put up an active fight to figure out the logic that the programmers intended. Most people don’t and would not even know where to start and why.

As a result, the efficiency of a task like specific retrieval is bounded by how fast you’ll be able to collect the information when cluelessly clicking around rather than a systematic approach and proper search criteria.

Almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Incompetence as an excuse for stonewalling

If you have a clue what you are doing. Most users of office applications don’t.

Okay, now how easy is it to do that data retrieval if you have no clue how to use a Linux system?

You’re setting the skill-levels differently to try and prove your point. Of course a particular program will be difficult to use if you don’t know what you’re doing, the question is how do they compare if you’re talking about skilled users knowledgeable in the program in question?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Incompetence as an excuse for stonewalling

In general, GUI based programs are more limited in their capabilities than command line programs, and it is much much harder to talk someone through a GUI solution than it is to give them a command to execute. With a powerful program, even experts will not be familiar with all its capabilities, so the ability to find useful examples, or use IRC or forums is still part of problem solving, and this much easier with command line tools as actual examples can be given, while a GUI requires describing menu navigation an dialogue options, and/or posting screen shots.

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

Re: Re: Incompetence as an excuse for stonewalling

Actually, I was extolling the virtues of open source in general, including operating systems and applications such as mail systems. (I’m partial to OpenBSD over Linux, by the way.)

5 seconds? Hmmm. Fascinating. Please explain how to do the functional equivalent of the following rather trivial prototype/proof-of-concept code on an Exchange server:

find /var/mail -type f -exec grepmail -h “^From.*John Smith” | grepmail -h “Ferguson” | sed -e “s/Mary Smith/XXXX XXXXX/g” -e “s/312-555-1212/XXX-XXX-XXXX/g” > mbox.out

That searches a mail store set up as one-message-per-file or in mbox format (both common architectures but of course by no means the only ones), extracts all messages from John Smith and containing Ferguson in the headers or body, then redacts Mary Smith’s name and phone number and deposits the results in a single mbox file. Obviously more sophisticated regular expressions would be required for real-world use, but this does illustrate how the combination of open formats, open OS and open source tools can be quickly utilized to construct (at least) a first-order solution to problems like this one.

This kind of scripting should of course be well within the grasp of any ‘nix mail system administrator with a few years of experience: it’s not something that requires guru-level expertise. Of course run time will be (roughly) proportional to the size of the mail store (in messages and in bytes) but since it can be run in the background, the human time required is only that necessary to craft the script(s) and then tweaks the regexps.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Incompetence as an excuse for stonewalling

@ rich k-
i think you are giving the evil minions of doom too much credit…
i seriously doubt they choose an email system based on how difficult it may be to retrieve emails, etc…
i am pretty sure there are a number of other confounding factors that are at play:
1. whatever was there… (never underestimate bureaucratic inertia)
2. whatever one of the big cheeses wants… (‘i hear tell that XYZ email is the best, my nephew says so…’)
3. whatever one of the big cheeses gets a kickback from buying/specifying…
NOT that i don’t doubt that evil minions of doom WOULD do some underhanded crap like that to avoid accountability; its just that i don’t think they are far-sighted and smart enough to actually plan something like that…
that they can point to a crap email system for ‘why’ they supposedly can’t retrieve emails easily, is an ‘undocumented feature’, not the original intention…
the evil minions of doom operate mostly ad hoc, not only are they generally not that smart, they DON’T HAVE TO BE… they simply call upon bullying by law, or otherwise ignoring requests with impunity; no need to be clever when you have a’because mother fucking eagles!’ sledgehammer to hit everyone with whenever you want…

Anonymous Coward says:

If the city had hired an outside firm to come in and do the work, paying $135/hr for a technical specialist would not have been out of line. What’s important is whether they’re actually getting their money’s worth in documents, rather than paying someone to burn up clock hours all day long and in the end not produce anything. (think of the $15 million it supposedly cost to attempt to recover the Bush White House “lost” emails)

Avatar says:

Our firm actually does this, all day long.

Couple grand to have a guy come on-site and perform a forensic collection of a bunch of e-mail is completely in-line with normal industry prices. Then it would cost additional for us to process the documents into a database and set it up for the department’s review, so they could figure out “okay, these are the e-mails we’re obliged to turn over, here are e-mails we aren’t, here’s more e-mails with swimsuit pics wtf Officer Skeevy!”

Then actual lawyers gotta look at the stuff.

This stuff is expensive because you’re not just saying “okay here’s the e-mail”, you’re saying “if you need us to, we will send someone to get up on the stand and explain to the judge how we did this, how we’re sure we got everything, and how we’re sure that this is really the true stuff and not a pack of lies they cooked up to look good.” You can go with a little fly-by-night company on the cheap, but if the other side challenges the work and they get up on the stand and go “derp”, you can lose million-dollar court cases.

(Or if they just blow it, the judge can say “guess what law firm, I just charged you a hundred thousand bucks for sucking. Suck less!” I’ve seen sanctions higher than that, even.)

It IS hella expensive; sometimes we’ve had people drop cases because it would cost more to have us satisfy the (reasonable) discovery request than it would cost to just pay up and go home.

Mike-2 Alpha (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Actually, this explanation makes a fair bit of sense to me. At least from the perspective of the PD. First, it gives them a reason to set a financial bar to access that could weed out a fair number of requests. That’s got to be appealing to them in this situation.

Second, if someone doesn’t like what they find in the information they’re given and thinks that they’ve either held something back or manufactured what they did give them, it lets them cover their asses. They can have someone from the firm stand up in front of a judge, if it gets that far, and say “no, this really is everything that fit their request, and here’s why”.

Anonymous Coward says:

FOIA Request on FOIA Charges

We need to send a FOIA request to the Ferguson PD requesting all emails, meeting notes, girlfriends’ names, and anything else related to the decision to charge excessive fees for FOIA requests.

I’m not familiar with the process. Is there a reasonable limit they are allowed to charge?

Avatar says:

Re: FOIA Request on FOIA Charges

There is. What you’re missing is that this is the reasonable charge.

It looks expensive because it’s got to be done meticulously so the other side can’t just say “well, that’s obviously after they deleted all the juicy e-mail, you should sanction them for underproducing!” That is the difference between “derp, I ran an outlook search and it came back with five e-mails” and “here’s the report of our forensics expert”. The task is more complicated than you know.

And yeah, you generally can’t file FOIA requests just to harass the office in question. They’ll just ignore it and dare you to put it in front of a judge, who will say “get out of my courtroom.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Almost seems like a third world country for the lack of rights the citizens are being given. Amazing no one higher up the chain sees anything wrong with how the officials of this city are acting.

Does not bode well for the rest of the country if the governor and the president see nothing wrong with how average citizens are being treated in ferguson

Math Man says:

Political Class Has Learned Well

Ferguson officials should announce that they are modeling their release of information to the press after President Obama’s administration: No reporter interviews, controlled leaks via political hack journalists, no questions from reporters at press conferences, threats of prosecution for treason for releasing information, surveillance of computers and phone calls, no pictures by the press except for government released official photos, etc. This has worked well for Obama. Seen any resignations from the White House Press corps? They should also use the phrase “most transparent county in the country” as many times as possible in their public statements.

Specifically on the response to FOIA, Ferguson officials should use the Obama method. Make a reasonable charge, just redact the hell out of the documents and take years to release them. Who knows the Chief might get the Nobel Prize for Peace.

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