Todd Wallack is a metro reporter for the Boston Globe, where he focuses mostly on investigative data stories. He’s also low hanging fruit for a Requester’s Voice since MuckRock’s offices are located in the Globe building. We caught up with Wallack to talk about his strategies for submitting requests for data, prospects for FOIA reform, and a seemingly newfound infatuation with privacy.
If you can remember back, what was the first public records request you filed?
I know that in college at Northwestern I filed a public records request for parking meters and the money going into that. A lot of the records I got I didn’t have to file a formal public records request for. I looked at voting records when I was writing about some people running for city council.
My first data request might have been some records in Green County, Ohio, where I started working after college for the Dayton Daily News. I got real estate records and dog tag license — this was 1994.
When I got the dog tag data, it had tons of home and work phone numbers. It was valuable because people want to be reached when their dog is on the loose. It had really valuable contact information. I had to fight for six or nine months to get the data because it was a time when a lot of government agencies were uncomfortable turning over data requests.
They would say, “We can’t do it. It involves programming. We don’t have to do programming.” Or they would want to charge extraordinary amounts.
Privacy wasn’t a concern with the dog owner information?
Privacy was not mentioned. But that was Ohio, and I think it was also a time where people were a little less sensitive about privacy. Now privacy is the big bugaboo, with everything rejected citing “privacy.”
What about your favorite request?
I don’t know if I have one favorite but there are a bunch that were good.
One was a copy of a settlement agreement in California for a worker at the University of California-Davis. Her name was Celeste Rose. She was a vice chancellor, so one of the top people at UC Davis. One day she got a promotion to a new job and nobody saw her after that. Her office disappeared, she was rarely seen around campus, and nobody knew what she did.
I was working at the San Francisco Chronicle and I asked for a copy of any type of agreement. I think I was initially denied and I kept pushing and finally got a copy of this agreement that only three people on campus knew about: the chancellor, a lawyer and Rose.
It basically said she would get a promotion and get this new title. She would get a $20,000 per year bump in salary to $205,000. She was guaranteed to keep that job for two years. She would get an additional $50,000 to look for a new job and if she was fired she would still get the salary for those two years. She also had no responsibilities. If she didn’t want to do any work she didn’t have to do any work. It was in return for her dropping legal claims after the university tried to fire her —she was threatening to file claims of racial and gender discrimination. Her husband also worked as a legislative aid, so it had a lot of pull.
But they kept this totally secret. There were policies at the university requiring the board of regents to approve any large settlements — I believe it was anything worth more than $50,000 or $100,000 — and to be notified of any smaller agreements. Neither of these were done in this case.
The university argued that it wasn’t really a settlement agreement but more of a transition agreement. But the wording in the contract said “settlement” all over it. And her lawyer called it a settlement. The university claimed it was settlement with a small ‘s’ not big ‘S’.
When I asked for a log of all settlement agreements, it turned out there were hundreds of them across the UC system, many of which had never been disclosed or approved by the board of regents.
People were so upset at UC Davis that many professors proposed a vote of no confidence. It didn’t pass, but a lot of people voted for it and it got a lot of attention.
What do you in the works currently that you can share with us?
Lately I’ve been trying to get a lot of databases internally that we can use as reference: things like voter records and assessor records and licensing records. It turns out in Massachusetts like a lot of states they license an enormous amount of professions.
Journalists, thank God, still don’t need a license but you do if you’re an architect, a landscape designer, a nurse or doctor or dentists, but also a mixed martial arts trainer, elevator operator, a waste water treatment operator, and so on.
It’s extraordinary how many different databases there are on people.
If I’m a first-time requester, what advice do you have for me?
One of the first things that I wish I had known is to not go into the process with an adversarial relationship. And that often means not filing a public records request right away.
The first thing you should do is look at the agency’s website and find out what information is already available. Maybe go to the office if it’s convenient and talk to people there. Find out what records are available, how they keep the information, and if you’re interested in something then ask what’s the best way to get it. They might just give it to you. Or they might point you to a report that they have sitting on their desk, or a part of their website that you just didn’t know about. Often they will help you find it.
See if they will work with you to see if there is a form that they fill out, what they call the form, and how far back the forms go (or if there’s an electronic database, what it’s called). Try to work with them to craft a request that they can understand.
That works most of the time.
The more you work with them, and the narrower your request, the more likely you’ll avoid a response like, “There is no such record” or “It’s going to cost $1,000,000”.
Also, keep good records. Track your requests. Be sure to follow up, because some government agencies count on requesters to never bug them about a request after the initial filing. It goes into a drawer and the agency never responds.
What if that approach doesn’t work out?
One thing is to find out what forms they have. You can find a lot of forms on the website or in annual reports. Go to their office and look at the stacks of forms that people fill out. If they have a form, presumably somebody is filling it out and maybe you want the information on that form and now you have the form number.
You can also ask for a log of their prior public records requests. That’s useful for a couple of reasons. It tells you what information people already asked for and it also gives you a clue of who is asking for information. I don’t use it try to check up on competition. I do it often to find out about the non-reporters (attorneys, consultants, contractors, etc.), people who really care about what that office does and are experts on the subject. They are often good people to talk to.
Another good avenue is to look in the statutes setting up the agency or in their own regulations. Often their regulations will explain what information they keep and what they’re required to keep.
The records retention policy is another good place to look. This document explains what records an agency needs to retain and for how long. Think of it as a partial inventory of what records an agency has. It’s never going to be complete but it’s a good index to a lot of the records.
What do you think the political landscape around FOIA laws looks like? Where is it going? When do you think it might get there?
I think the laws vary a lot by state. In Massachusetts, they’re worse than average: among the worst of any state I’ve been familiar with, so that’s been challenging and frustrating.
Every state has pluses and minuses and it’s constantly in flux.
At the federal level, it’s long and frustrating. It varies a lot based on agency. But in general requests take far too long to get, and records cost too much. And when you do get the records, they’re often heavily redacted or missing documents.
If you look at the FOIA reports filed by different agencies, according to their own accounting it sometimes takes many months or years to respond to requests and they deny a huge portion of requests. I heard a recent report where the State Department was among the worst along with the Department of Defense.
There are constantly proposals to make records more available. In Massachusetts there’s a bill pending that would, for the first time, allow people who sue successfully for records to get attorney’s fees. Which is huge because a big reason why people don’t sue more frequently even when they’re denied is because it’s an expensive lengthy process. And even when you win it’s a Pyrrhic victory because you’re out possibly tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
At the same time there are always proposals to restrict public records and often the major reason being used now is privacy and concerns about data theft.
For instance, Congress just decided to restrict access to the master list of deaths, arguing that it would be a risk of identity theft if anybody can get that list of names of people who are dead and other information.
Ironically it could actually increase identity theft by making those records harder to get because that means people who want to check to see if individuals are improperly applying for registering to vote or applying for government benefits or applying for credit card might have a harder time screening out the people falsely claiming a dead person’s identity.
Journalists routinely use that database to find dead voters, or people voting in the name of the dead. It makes for great headlines.