County Prosecutor Looking To Arrest Housing Official After Agency Demands $16,000 To Fulfill FOIA Request

from the a-bandwagon-worth-jumping-on dept

This may be about 60% stunt and 40% forceful nudge, but I’m still behind it 100%. For far too long, public officials have treated Freedom of Information laws as an annoyance… at best. In many cases, information designated as eligible for freedom has to be pried out of officials’ hands using lawsuits, needlessly-protracted appeals processes or crowd-sourced tenacity.

Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley said he will issue an arrest affidavit today against Rodney Forte, the executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Alliance in Little Rock, for a violation of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

First off, you can be arrested for violating this act. In Arkansas, any violation of its FOIA law can result in this penalty.

Any person who negligently violates any of the provisions of this chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be punished by a fine of not more than two hundred dollars ($200) or thirty (30) days in jail, or both, or a sentence of appropriate public service or education, or both.

It’s nice to see someone following the letter of the law. Not following the letter of the law (and steamrolling its spirit) is what put Forte in the prosecutor’s sights. Forte had decided to greet a FOIA request he didn’t want to fulfill with the time-honored anti-FOIA tactic of pricing his agency out of the market.

The action comes after the Metropolitan Housing Alliance sent an invoice to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette late Tuesday,charging more than $16,000 to hire outside workers to help the agency comply with a records-release request — a practice the Little Rock city attorney and other Arkansas Freedom of Information Act experts say is illegal.

It may be illegal, but plenty of agencies do it without suffering anything more than a loss in the court of public opinion. Sure, they may eventually face lawsuits, but that’s really just public money being spent in defense of a publicly-funded agency’s desire to keep the public separated from public documents. It’s about as painful to the offending agency as being punched in someone else’s wallet.

This particular form of enforcement is rarely (if ever) deployed, although Arkansas seems to be more aggressive than most states when it comes to punishing violators. In Jegley’s 23 years as a county prosecutor, he’s never seen this happen. Usually some sort of compromise between requester and requestee is reached before it gets to this point. But that hasn’t happened in this dispute, which has been ongoing for several months now — even involving Little Rock’s mayor’s intervention on behalf of the requesting party, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola contacted Forte on Wednesday in an attempt to intervene in the latest dispute over records. Stodola is a former Little Rock city attorney and Pulaski County prosecutor.

“I am not familiar with any request for payment for such a large nature as this and based on my interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act, the computer systems that the agency has are required to make this information readily available,” Stodola said.

“These kinds of document requests are routine, and when I was prosecutor, virtually all of this kind of information [at most agencies] is kept in an electronic format that can be downloaded quite easily.”

Forte claims proprietary software is involved and all documents would need to be printed and scanned before they could be released, but has failed to detail what software the agency is using or released any other technical details. He has also hasn’t discussed his agency’s failure to comply with another section of the state’s FOIA law.

Arkansas Code Annotated 25-19-105 (g) states that any software acquired by an agency “shall be in full compliance with the requirements” of the Freedom of Information Act and “shall not impede public access to records in electronic form.”

So, Jegley has answered Forte’s obfuscatory power play with one of his own. At this point, Forte’s arrest is in the hands of a judge. Jegley still needs to turn his affidavit into a warrant, at which point it may expand to include others involved in the Metropolitan Housing Authority’s $16,000 fiasco.

Hopefully, this move will force the documents out of the agency’s hands. Clearly, there’s something in there it wants hidden — something likely related to agency’s addition of a $92,000/yr deputy executive director during a period when it was shedding nearly a third of its staff and reducing pay to non-salaried employees.

Even if this goes nowhere, it’s still incredibly refreshing to see public servants acting to hold other public servants accountable. Other states should take a good look at Arkansas’ FOIA law and think about giving their own a few teeth by making violations an arrestable offense.

Filed Under: , , , , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “County Prosecutor Looking To Arrest Housing Official After Agency Demands $16,000 To Fulfill FOIA Request”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

And why the !@#$ would you need to hire outside consultants to do something any five year old can do? I doubt the documents in question even need to be searched for, since they’ve been sitting on this for months now wondering if they can get away with, “Oopsie, I accidentally deleted it, sorry.” They know exactly what documents we’re talking about.

I suspect somebody’s going to jail for this when all’s said and done. Yay Fourth Estate for holding their nose to the grindstone!

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:


Any person who negligently violates any of the provisions of this chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor…

“How do you plead?”

“Not guilty, your honor. The statute specifies the standard of guilt as negligence, and my acts were completely willful.”

“The court finds the defendant not guilty.” *gavel whack* “Court is adjourned.”

Andrew Norton (profile) says:

Re: Negligent?

Willful negligence exists.
Intentional performance of an unreasonable act in disregard of a known risk, making it highly probable that harm will be caused. Willful negligence usually involves a conscious indifference to the consequences.

just because it’s willful, doesn’t stop it being negligence, just means you were negligent on purpose, which makes things worse.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It’s to make it as difficult as possible to search the results. The source file could be searched easily for specific words, phrases or numbers, whereas a badly scanned document would take much more work to do the same.

Also helps to pad out the time and effort required, to make it seem like a much more difficult, and therefor expensive task, but I’m pretty sure information obfuscation is the primary reason behind such moves.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Scan to an image on a dirty scanner, it makes OCRing very difficult to impossible, and forces the recipient to re key it if they want to make it searchable. Also the approach makes for transcription errors in the re-key, reducing the worth of the document. Print to PDF, and then rescan is a deliberate move to reduce the utility of responses.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

That’s true for some laws. But for this law in particular, we’re talking about government employees – and ones that are high enough to have the authority to approve or deny FOIA requests. In this case, they’re going after an executive director. I don’t think he’ll have a problem coming up with $200.

Rich people could get both the fine AND the jail time, if the judge wanted. For a poor person who couldn’t afford the fine and didn’t deserve jail, it could instead be “a sentence of appropriate public service or education,” according to the law.

beltorak (profile) says:

minor point, but

> Forte claims proprietary software is involved and all documents would need to be printed and scanned before they could be released

That right there is the single most powerful reason to strictly enforce open software and open standards in government. That is such a completely bullshit response. The money spent on licensing proprietary garbage could instead be spent to sponsor development of the tools you need.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...