DC Legislators Push FOIA Amendment That Would Shield Government Emails From FOIA Requesters [UPDATE]

from the dirtbags-gonna-dirtbag dept

UPDATE: Alex Howard reports the DC Council has tabled this amendment so it is no longer being considered during this round of budget debates.

Buried at the bottom of Washington, D.C.’s 2020 budget report [PDF] is a gift to legislators who value opacity. The so-called “Freedom of Information Clarification Amendment” would make it much more difficult for requesters to obtain the documents they’re seeking.

The amendment to the district’s FOIA law would require requesters to know exactly what documents they’re seeking when they request them. It’s a nearly-impossible bar to hurdle — one that turns FOIA requests into games of Battleship.

“Reasonably describing” means describing with particularity the public records requested by including the names of the sender and recipient, a timeframe for the search, and a description of the subject matter of the public record or search terms to allow a public body to conduct a search and review within the time prescribed pursuant to section 202(c).”.

What this means is requesters seeking communications would need to know both the sender and recipient of emails they’ve never seen or the agency can reject the request entirely. The legislator pushing this says it will stop “fishing expeditions.” But requests are sometimes necessarily “fishing expeditions” because requesters are working blind. They don’t have access to these communications and have no way of knowing how many parties discussed the subject at hand. If this passes, D.C. government agencies will be pressing the “reject” button with increased frequency.

If there’s anything transparent here, it’s the self-interest of the legislators pushing the amendment. One member of the D.C. Council — a Democrat like the councilmember who wrote the amendment — has been the subject of unflattering news coverage based on FOIA requests.

In March, for example, The Washington Post reported that D.C. Council Member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) had repeatedly sent business proposals to potential employers in which he offered his connections and influence as the city’s longest-serving lawmaker and chairman of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Evans made those pitches using his government email account, and journalists obtained them through the District’s FOIA law.


Last year, journalist Jeffrey Anderson, also using documents obtained through FOIA, reported that Evans’s son was offered an internship by a digital-sign company that would have benefited from legislation Evans advanced at the council.

Legislators’ own dishonest dealings have often resulted in calls to change public records rules to provide more opacity. Claims are made about “fishing expeditions” and protecting the private lives of legislators but, in reality, the real goal is protecting government employees from the people they serve.

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Comments on “DC Legislators Push FOIA Amendment That Would Shield Government Emails From FOIA Requesters [UPDATE]”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

So much wasted effort...

If they’re tired of ‘fishing expeditions’ there’s a much easier, much more surefire way to avoid them entirely: Get out of politics.

If they’re no longer pubic servants then there will no longer be any worry about someone filing to see just who they are communicating with, and if they do any lawsuit will almost certainly fail unless they tried the same trick from the other side.

I mean sure, it would mean that they couldn’t attempt to sell themselves to the highest bidder in an attempt to abuse their position for personal gain, but that would be a small price to pay for privacy as I’m sure they’re not trying to do that on a regular basis or anything.

AnonyOps says:

Re: So much wasted effort...

The DEMS & GOP have everything to hide and nothing to gain from the general public. Always remember lawmakers don’t work for the people they work for corporate entities with more rights than people. As they reap, so shall they suffer the inevitable blow back.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

When you realize the world can see that you’re behaving like an asshole, a decent human being ties to stop being an asshole. A politician tries to gouge out the world’s eyes. It’s kinda fascinating that we so frequently elect sociopaths to govern our society.

That’s because we are sociopaths ourselves.

Decent humans cannot thrive under rules designed to reward sociopathy.

Why do you think polygraphs are inadmissible? They’re too accurate. No plausible deniability.

Rocky says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Actually, they aren’t used routinely. No one can be forced to take a polygraph test against their will. In many courts a polygraph test is inadmissible, in others they are admissible if both parties agrees – regardless, the evidentiary value is usually considered to be low to nonexistent.

May I suggest you stop using TV-shows as the basis for your understanding of legal matters.

Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

True story. A man committed suicide after failing the polygraph test on the Jeremy Kyle show. They’ve pulled the plug on the show as a result because baiting desperate people is cruel.

Did he cheat on his fiancee? Probably not, but he made 300 calls to get on the show. That’s a lot of effort to go to so I daresay the answer is no based on how eager he was go public with this.

I’m starting to think that polygraph testing ought to be illegal as the psychological pressure has already led to suicide in at least one vulnerable person.

Jon Renaut (profile) says:

Jack's not a Democrat

Agree with most of your article, just wanted to clarify – DC votes about 96% Democratic. The primaries are essentially the election here, so everyone runs as a Democrat. It’s stupid, but we as a country have decided that an exactly two party system is the only possible way to have a government.

Jack is a conservative and a terrible person. When they put in physical barriers to keep people from u-turning through the cycletrack down the middle of PA Ave, Jack made the DC Dept of Transportation leave space in front of the Council office building so he could u-turn into his parking space out front.

How do I know that? Because advocates FOIA’ed it.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Jack's not a Democrat

This is fun..
Lets consider that its a 2 party system, controlled by 2 parties.
What and how to keep control.
Create other groups to thin out the 2 main groups. those other groups are More and more, to the point None can get more then a percentage of people to back them..
Then you get the Smart group that figures the only way to get backing is to join and subvert the larger group(look into past history of both of these groups when there WERE other groups). Popularity and consensus of the domesticated Cow applies here. As Man creates a LEAD cow and all the rest follow.

GEMont (profile) says:

Silly Wabbit...

"…but, in reality, the real goal is protecting government employees from the people they serve."

You don’t really think that these folks are actually interested in "serving" the public do you?

That is extremely naive.

The millionaire members of any fascist or corporate-owned state are solely and explicitly interested in turning the public into a money making machine through the re-writing and re-interpretation of laws that normally protect the public from the exploits of the rich.

The public serves them, until the public is empty, and then the fascists move on to the next victim state.

Fascism is a fatal social disease.

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