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.

Filed Under: dc, dc city council, foia, transparency, washington dc


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 15 May 2019 @ 6:32pm

    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.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 15 May 2019 @ 9:27pm

      Re: So much wasted effort...

      I've told more than one retail grunt that there are jobs out there that don't require them to deal with me.

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

    • identicon
      David, 16 May 2019 @ 3:16am

      Re: So much wasted effort...

      If they're no longer pubic servants

      Wrong scandal.

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

    • identicon
      AnonyOps, 16 May 2019 @ 8:12am

      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.

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

      • icon
        Uriel-238 (profile), 17 May 2019 @ 1:09pm

        lawmakers don't work for the people

        The problem with this, of course, is once the people realize this is the case, the people have no need to behave themselves as participants.

        We are in an era in which criminals and racketeers thrive better than those who obey the law and act within the norms of society.

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

  • icon
    stderric (profile), 15 May 2019 @ 8:44pm

    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.

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

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 15 May 2019 @ 9:26pm

      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.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 15 May 2019 @ 9:51pm

        Re: Re:

        Polygraphs are inadmissible because it tracks fear, and fear can come from anything, especially cops.

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

        • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
          identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 15 May 2019 @ 10:20pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Polygraphs are inadmissible because it tracks fear, and fear can come from anything, especially cops.

          Yet they are routinely used to rule out murder suspects. Can't be that inaccurate.

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

          • identicon
            Rocky, 15 May 2019 @ 11:42pm

            Re: Re: Re: 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.

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

          • icon
            Matthew Cline (profile), 16 May 2019 @ 2:19am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Polygraphs are used regularly because they can be used to apply psychological pressure to the questionee. Not because they have any sort of accuracy.

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

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 15 May 2019 @ 11:19pm

        Re: Re:

        Why do you think polygraphs are inadmissible? Because they're based on pseudoscience.

        Fixed for accuracy.

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

        • icon
          Wendy Cockcroft (profile), 17 May 2019 @ 6:50am

          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.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 16 May 2019 @ 1:43am

      Re:

      It's kinda fascinating that we so frequently elect sociopaths to govern our society.

      Its more a case that seeking power over others is a sign of sociopathy, hence most candidates for office are sociopaths.

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

      • icon
        Bamboo Harvester (profile), 16 May 2019 @ 8:11am

        Re: Re:

        People don't realize that about 30% of the US population is on the socio/psychopathic spectrum.

        And refuse to realize that anyone seeking the power over others that comes with a political or law enforcement job are the LAST people that should be trusted with that kind of power.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 16 May 2019 @ 7:24am

      Re:

      "It's kinda fascinating that we so frequently elect sociopaths to govern our society."

      In politics, it is not the cream that rises to the top.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 May 2019 @ 9:25pm

    This site is like a tv show where the lead character is in danger of being killed off and they don't realize I'm rooting for the villains.

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

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 15 May 2019 @ 10:39pm

    Im looking for??

    Im looking for the law..
    Which law..
    All of them..
    Dont have those, give me an Description/idea of what you are looking for..
    The law of the land..
    Which land? Property law?
    no all the laws..
    I dont have all the laws. give me a better description.

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

  • identicon
    David, 16 May 2019 @ 3:23am

    A true Catch 22

    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).”.

    If we choose not to reply within the legally allowed time, your request was invalid.

    What — the — Heller?!?!?

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

  • icon
    Jon Renaut (profile), 16 May 2019 @ 4:39am

    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.

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

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 16 May 2019 @ 9:54am

      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.

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

  • icon
    aerinai (profile), 16 May 2019 @ 6:17am

    Compromise

    I propose new legislation that will require the automatic dump of sender, recipient, timestamp, and subject to automatically be dumped to a searchable database for FOIA requestors.

    That will stop the fishing expeditions and make everyone happy!

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

    • icon
      Bamboo Harvester (profile), 16 May 2019 @ 6:24am

      Re: Compromise

      Yeah! Put them all in one repository!

      Then every FOIA request can be responded to with "We got hacked", "Sorry, the server is down", or "our interwebs isn't working"....

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 16 May 2019 @ 7:51am

        Re: Re: Compromise

        You don't have enough security clearance to access that document, citizen.

        Have a nice day. The Computer is your friend, citizen.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 May 2019 @ 7:58am

    and this type of amendment/law only happens when there's nothing to hide! as if politicians would even think of doing/saying/writing anything illegal! perish the thought!

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

  • identicon
    GEMont, 16 May 2019 @ 8:34am

    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.

    -

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

  • icon
    Ehud Gavron (profile), 16 May 2019 @ 1:31pm

    Tabled the ammendment

    Table in US English: Remove from the table and stop discussion.
    Table in UK English: Put on the table to start discussion.

    If you're writing for an international audience, best to avoid the use of this term that as 180° meanings in different English-speaking countries.

    E

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


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