Local Government Employee Fined For Illegally Deleting Item Requested Under Freedom Of Information Act

from the it-may-be-small,-but-it's-still-a-win dept

Techdirt writes about freedom of information matters often enough. Sadly, many of the stories are about governments and other official bodies refusing to comply with local Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws for various reasons, and using a variety of tricks. In other words, rights to FOI may exist in theory, but the practice falls woefully short. That makes the following story from the UK a welcome exception.

It concerns Nicola Young, a local government employee in the English market town of Whitchurch, in Shropshire. Part of her job as town clerk was to handle FOIA requests for the local council. One such request asked for a copy of the audio recording of a council meeting. Apparently the person requesting the file believed that the written minutes of the meeting had been fabricated, and wanted to check them against the recording. However, the reply came back that the file had already been deleted, as was required by the official council policy.

Undeterred, the person requesting the file sent a complaint to the UK's main Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which carried out an investigation. The ICO discovered that the town clerk had not only claimed that the audio file had already been deleted when it actually existed, but that she personally deleted it a few days after the FOI request was made. Quite why is not clear, but as a result:

On Wednesday 11 March, Young, of Shrewsbury Street, Whitchurch, Shropshire, was convicted at Crewe Magistrates after pleading guilty to blocking records with the intention of preventing disclosure and was fined £400 [about $490], ordered to pay costs of £1,493 [$1,835] and a victim surcharge £40 [$50].

In its press release on the case, the ICO comments that it "marks the first ever successful conviction under the [UK's] FOIA.". It may be a small victory, but we'll take it.

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Filed Under: foia, nicola young, record destruction, uk


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  1. icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 18 Mar 2020 @ 8:12pm

    Now if we can get the same for those that did the same with Georgia election server data.

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

  2. icon
    Ben (profile), 19 Mar 2020 @ 1:04am

    So, which attendee of the meeting told her to delete the recording for fear of losing her job?

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

  3. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 19 Mar 2020 @ 1:59am

    Thanks for the confirmation

    Apparently the person requesting the file believed that the written minutes of the meeting had been fabricated, and wanted to check them against the recording.

    The ICO discovered that the town clerk had not only claimed that the audio file had already been deleted when it actually existed, but that she personally deleted it a few days after the FOI request was made.

    Well, I'd say that nicely confirmed that yeah, at best the minutes were fabricated, with the only question at this point being 'what was so damning that it was worth deleting?'

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

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Mar 2020 @ 4:07am

    Re:

    More like she did not want people to know why she was not attending meetings

    From the linked article:

    Young's criminal conviction (other breaches of the Act are unlawful but not criminal) marked the third anniversary of her appointment as town clerk, while council meeting minutes show that she stopped attending full council meetings from November 2019 onwards. In December, the minutes merely recorded that, under the heading "staffing matters," Whitchurch's mayor "gave an update on the Town Clerk's absence."

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

  5. icon
    Tanner Andrews (profile), 19 Mar 2020 @ 4:46am

    Here in Florida, we have what is considered a leading public records law [Ch. 119, also Constitution A1S24(a)], though over the years it has suffered death by over a thousand cuts. There are now approximately 1500 exemptions scattered throughout the statutes, some of which may pass constitutional muster.

    There is a provision for fees for requests which must be litigated. However, the cost to litigate validity of exemptions is shifted onto the requestor.

    With that in mind, and remembering that this was a reaction to the abuses of the "pork chop" era first enacted in 1967, there have been stunningly few prosecutions under the criminal provisions. There may be a total of one, at least that went up on appeal: State v. Webb, 768 So.2d 602 (1DCA 2001).

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

  6. icon
    Dan (profile), 19 Mar 2020 @ 5:40am

    We staff for this

    Here in America we have plenty of scapegoats on staff, for just such situations.

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

  7. icon
    JoeCool (profile), 19 Mar 2020 @ 7:21am

    Re: We staff for this

    Yep. It's partly why government positions grow so much - the scapegoats realize they need a scapegoat as well. :)

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

  8. icon
    Upstream (profile), 19 Mar 2020 @ 7:22am

    Re:

    In my area (Florida) the local school system (School District) has a long history of corruption and malfeasance of all types. At one point, after a whistle-blower obtained some incriminating documents via public records requests, it was reported in the local papers that the School District Superintendent then advised all School District personnel to just not write anything down.

    In another instance, another whistle-blower reported this to the local papers ("District" refers to the local School District):

    I have been informed by District legal counsel that when I am provided with a document, the District does not couch for or otherwise guarantee that the document is what it purports to be. There is no representation by the District, implied or real, that the contents of the document are valid, authentic, or accurate. This is especially the case when the document purports to be a District policy or procedure.

    In other words, the school system can provide you with complete BS, and it is up to you to prove that it is BS, which would probably be impossible, since any evidence to prove that it is BS would probably need to come from the school system.

    These are just a couple of examples of the myriad ways that government agencies circumvent open records laws. Others include complete document redactions for reasons that can't be substantiated or refuted (can you say "national security"?), indefinite delays, exorbitant and prohibitive "copying and research" fees, etc.

    Unfortunately the FOIA and similar open records laws have, in most cases, become a complete joke. Instances where they accomplish what they were intended to accomplish are rare exceptions.

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

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Mar 2020 @ 9:19am

    i bet it wont stop the council from changing records in the future (bet that's what had happened). i wonder if her fine was paid out of council funds?

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

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Mar 2020 @ 10:38am

    Re:

    As she was the one with something to hide, I doubt it, as it looks like deleting the tapes was self serving.

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

  11. icon
    Tanner Andrews (profile), 19 Mar 2020 @ 11:22pm

    Re: Re:

    the District does not couch for or otherwise guarantee that the document is what it purports to be

    The problem with that is the risk. If the whistle-blower finds out that he got a fake document instead of the requested public record, then the district has failed to respond to the public records request by producing either the requested material or a statutory claim of exemption.

    If they get sued for failure to produce, they not only lose but also look very bad. The judge might even enjoy applying the statutory fee-shifting provision. Much depends on the judge, however, because there are many who are mere respecters of persons.

    It does help if your request is properly addressed to the records custodian and clearly specifies the records to be produced. I have a request form I normally use; it tracks the paper forms provided by Big Jim (Clayton), a giant of open government who is still missed after all these years. Yes, that [Clayton v. Regents, 635 So.2d 937; Clayton v. School Board, 696 So.2d 1215] James Clayton.

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

  12. identicon
    Steve, 20 Mar 2020 @ 1:29am

    Of course what most places do is hold one meeting on the record for public consumption, then hold a second meeting after it where you really discuss things.

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


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