100 Million Pennies For Your Thoughts? DEA Hands MuckRock A $1.4 Million Estimate For Responsive Documents

from the one-agency's-pocket-change-is-another-entity's-small-fortune dept

The EFF recently kicked off a contest for the "most outrageous response to a Freedom of Information Act request" and we already have a frontrunner for the first inaugural "Foilie." MuckRock's loose confederation of FOIA rabblerousers has been hit with a $1.4 million price tag for John Dyer's request for documents related to the "localization and capture" of Mexican drug lord "El Chapo." (Or Joaquin Guzman, as he was presumably known to his mom.)

The price tag for the requested documents is almost absurdly high. Almost. There are some mitigating factors that might keep this request from snagging the coveted "Foilie." For one, there's a whole lot of responsive documents.

In fairness, the request is quite broad in scope, and the estimated 13,051 case files would create considerable workload.
But on the other hand, the estimate seems to have been pulled out of thin air, rather than based on any actual calculations.
But assuming that $200,000 of that fee came from photocopying (which would put the total number of pages at two million), that would put the time estimate at over 40,000 hours, or 1785 days. That's almost five years of constant work without breaks.
And while $1.4 million may be pocket change for an agency with a budget in the low billions, it's a much bigger number than MuckRock's system is built to handle. Attempting to punch this estimated total into the "Cost" field returned a "What is this? A phone number??!?" error.


Naturally, the DEA has denied MuckRock's requested fee waiver, citing a whole page worth of reasons, but really mainly because there's no way it would kick 13,000 documents loose without collecting a substantial amount from the requester. On the other hand, this sky-high fee runs counter to the intended purpose of the Freedom of Information laws: to "free information." That doesn't mean it should necessarily be "free," but it does mean that agencies are supposed to do their best to ensure the public isn't priced out of accessing information.

This request will have to be narrowed considerably if MuckRock hopes to obtain anything on this subject from the DEA. While it does have crowdfunding options, the chances of donors putting together over a million dollars seems unlikely. And the DEA itself could use some guidance on putting together fee estimates, seeing as some simple math exposes how its $1.4 million quote is completely unmoored from reality.

Filed Under: costs, dea, el chapo, fees, foia, joaquin guzman
Companies: muckrock


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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 9 Feb 2015 @ 7:53am

    But assuming that $200,000 of that fee came from photocopying (which would put the total number of pages at two million), that would put the time estimate at over 40,000 hours, or 1785 days. That's almost five years of constant work without breaks.

    Don't forget that 2 million pages will spend mind boggling amounts of black ink for the redaction. Or maybe they read TD and will duct tape a few redacted pages in a cylinder and fax it to MurckRock to offload ink costs. Who knows?

    /derp

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Feb 2015 @ 9:42am

      Re:

      I bet they'd save a lot of money by buying black construction paper.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Feb 2015 @ 2:14pm

      Re:

      "But assuming that $200,000 of that fee came from photocopying[...]that would put the time estimate at over 40,000 hours"

      Those people earn only $5 per hour? Sure, it is just copying but still it is work... seems that they don't pay much. No wonder the economy guess to sh**. How can you even afford a decent lunch with $40 a day? That is less than some of my friends pay for an aperitif.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        John Fenderson (profile), 9 Feb 2015 @ 2:20pm

        Re: Re:

        "How can you even afford a decent lunch with $40 a day? That is less than some of my friends pay for an aperitif."

        Wow, where do you live? Where I am, $40 can buy you a whole week of decent lunches. But yes, $5/hr seems unbelievable -- that's not even minimum wage.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 9 Feb 2015 @ 3:27pm

        Re: Re:

        200,000 is the photocopy cost. ~ 1.4M is the total cost. 1.2M the remainder. ~ 42,000 man hrs * 28 DOLLARS AN HOUR (clearly listed as the wage they're billing at) =~ 1.2M. So no not $5 an hour, $28

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 9 Feb 2015 @ 7:56am

    Gold plated paper...

    Is about the only possible reason the costs could be so insanely high. $1,461,712 divided by 13,051 pages puts the per page cost at $112.

    Unless they are training and employing monks to scribe each page individually, complete with fanciful illustrations, there is no possible excuse for a cost that high other than cost padding to try and avoid having to provide the asked for documents.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Rabbit80 (profile), 9 Feb 2015 @ 8:36am

      Re: Gold plated paper...

      That's 13,051 case files, not pages.

      If each one worked out to be ~155 pages then you would have 2 million pages. For reference, our scanning bureau would charge approx $10-15 for prepping and scanning each file or around $25-30 for photocopying including labour, but we don't do any redaction.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 9 Feb 2015 @ 4:23pm

        Re: Re: Gold plated paper...

        Point, I seem to have missed that one myself, I just assumed it was pages, rather than sets when I read it.

        At the rates you listed then, that would come out to be approximately $326,275-391,530, including labour, which still leaves a difference of about 1.1 million. If all of that is redaction time, that is still insanely expensive.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Movak (profile), 9 Feb 2015 @ 1:43pm

      Re: Gold plated paper...

      You don't read very well. It is 13,050 case files not pages. Each case file could have hundreds of pages.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      erroch, 9 Feb 2015 @ 2:02pm

      Re: Gold plated paper...

      That's assuming those documents are single page documents. Without knowing the size of these documents an actual price per page can't be computed.

      I have some legal documents stored in my office that are well over a thousand pages in length, and that's just related to some software I've worked on.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Feb 2015 @ 9:17am

    Why aren't these files native-digital?

    Paper? 13,000 case files ON PAPER?

    Someone tell these chumps it's not 1975 any more.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Feb 2015 @ 9:42am

    can has USB?

    how about the electronic version?

    phuck paper!

    1.4 million for carpel tunnel from all the reactions might be the cause I guess?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Feb 2015 @ 9:43am

      Re: can has USB?

      They'll just print it out, fax it to the official department scanner, then scan in the printed faxes and send you those.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Feb 2015 @ 9:59am

      Re: can has USB?

      Paper is the least useful way of giving people documents, which is why they use it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 9 Feb 2015 @ 10:05am

      Re: can has USB?

      Useful redaction's of Word documents means they would have to delete the 'redaction's' then refill that space with 'x's' which really does not work since the 'redaction's' would then show up in the document history. They could, I suppose copy the electronic file into a text only program, then do the redaction's, and then email them, but does that save any labor, (and it would lose all their cool logos and little boxes in their forms)?

      Of course there is the option of not doing any redaction's at all and just send the entirety of any documents, but that would set a precedent that would undermine the entire secrecy part of government actions, and that would cause a tear in the space/time continuum, or something.

      Maybe they could create some pre-redacted pages, then make multiple copies (approximating the number of documents requested) with new page numbering. In that case the underlying 'redaction's' would all be FU, over and over and over again.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 9 Feb 2015 @ 10:05am

      Re: can has USB?

      Useful redaction's of Word documents means they would have to delete the 'redaction's' then refill that space with 'x's' which really does not work since the 'redaction's' would then show up in the document history. They could, I suppose copy the electronic file into a text only program, then do the redaction's, and then email them, but does that save any labor, (and it would lose all their cool logos and little boxes in their forms)?

      Of course there is the option of not doing any redaction's at all and just send the entirety of any documents, but that would set a precedent that would undermine the entire secrecy part of government actions, and that would cause a tear in the space/time continuum, or something.

      Maybe they could create some pre-redacted pages, then make multiple copies (approximating the number of documents requested) with new page numbering. In that case the underlying 'redaction's' would all be FU, over and over and over again.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Rabbit80 (profile), 9 Feb 2015 @ 10:26am

        Re: Re: can has USB?

        Not really as bad as that to be honest.. With the right software redactions are pretty easy and you give fully redacted PDF versions.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          John Fenderson (profile), 9 Feb 2015 @ 2:22pm

          Re: Re: Re: can has USB?

          True. And, even though I personally hate PDFs, this would be an appropriate use for them and they're still much more useful than paper copies.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Unanimous Cow Herd, 9 Feb 2015 @ 11:28am

      Re: can has USB?

      Have a little Stuxnet with your dox! :(

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ben (profile), 9 Feb 2015 @ 9:50am

    Can someone FOIA the estimate?

    I wonder how much they would say it would cost to get all documents (and calculations) related to that $1.4 million estimate.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Feb 2015 @ 10:06am

    Lawsuit against the DEA it is then!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Reverend Draco (profile), 9 Feb 2015 @ 10:55am

    Unmoored

    "And the DEA itself could use some guidance on putting together fee estimates, seeing as some simple math exposes how its $1.4 million quote is completely unmoored from reality."

    I'm not sure how this is news - *EVERYTHING* the DEA does is unmoored from reality, as has been well-known and -documented for decades. If the DEA allowed reality to enter into the mix. . . the DEA would be forced to disband itself, return every stolen penny to the people it rightfully belongs to, and turn every employee over for prosecution under the RICO Act.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Movak (profile), 9 Feb 2015 @ 5:13pm

    Math

    $1.3M/13Kdocument = $108/per case file. Considering that the case file needs to be gathered, reviewed, packaged and sent out and everyone in the process gets paid I think $108 per case file is reasonable. Maybe MuckRock should direct their requests better.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Shaun Wilson (profile), 10 Feb 2015 @ 12:41am

    Initially looking at the story I thought that while $1.4 million did seem a large amount, with "13,051 investigative case files" involved then maybe the time spent reviewing them for redaction meant it was legitimate. I decided to look into it further, just to see.

    Firstly in the DEA's response letter there is the fee waiver section. This is not based on the volume of documents requested rather on how 6 different factors are "balanced". The DEA basically said that 5 of 6 factors were in the requester's favor and "Consequently, you request for a waiver of fees is denied." What? The "balancing" determined that even though the request would contribute to "public understanding" (factor 3) it would not do so "significantly" (factor 4) and this one factor outweighed the 5 other factors. This seems rather dubious but lets continue.

    How about the time spent "searching" for the documents? The DEA conducted a "preliminary" search which involved entering the drug lord's "name, social security number and/or date of birth" into the "Narcotics and Dangerous Drug Information System (NADDIS)" which found 13,051 files. Ok so it looks like the actual "search" part is already done (even if only in "preliminary" form) so that can't take much time, how about the review for reactions? Well according to the DEA "review costs may be charged to commercial requesters only" and they have already told the requester "there is no indication that you are a commercial requester" (factors 5&6 above).

    So this all adds up to mean that the DEA thinks it will take over 5 years of effort to type a few words into a computer system. Even considering that it took almost a whole year to type this in on a "preliminary" basis I can't believe that they were working full time typing those few words nor that it would take 5 times as long to type it "officially". The only other reasonable conclusion is that those are mostly copying fees and there are over a thousand pages in each of those files. Or, you know, the DEA is lying. Take your pick.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    R. Toynbee (profile), 12 Feb 2015 @ 11:49am

    FOIA

    There is much more to this request.
    The request is not specific. Much time must be spent researching the file as many documents most likely do not relate to the issue being sought. That is very costly. FOIA request responses only release documents specifically related to the request. There may be and probably are many documents in these files which do not.
    Each page must be reviewed for sensitive information, ie: law enforcement names. 3rd party ID info., attorney work product, law enforcement sources who could be endangered if ID was released, attorney work product etc. Documents are not just copied and released. Whether documents are paper or digitized, they still must be read and redacted carefully.
    Any investigation of a cartel leader undoubtedly took years and involved many sources and sensitive investigations which may still be tied to current law enforcement activities. The Freedom of Information Act provides for approximately a dozen exemptions for non releasable subjects and much danger could be involved if not handled with much caution. Furthermore, the law does provide that an agency may deny a request if it creates a substantial burden upon the agency. Otherwise, a deluge of frivolous requests could drive an agency to a halt which in no way serves the intent of the FOIA.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Shaun Wilson (profile), 13 Feb 2015 @ 5:22pm

      Re: FOIA

      Alright I suppose you are right that some of the files that they found that relate to the "drug lord" don't actually relate to the DEA's role in his capture and some time must be spend eliminating the irrelevant records. However as I pointed out above, according to the DEA's foia page:
      fees can be charged to recover review costs. Review is the process of examining documents to determine whether any portion is exempt from disclosure ... review costs may be charged to commercial requesters only

      And again as I said above, the DEA determined "there is no indication that you are a commercial requester" and so those review costs cannot be charged to him.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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