Using public records to pierce Palantir’s secrecy and unmask Trader Joe’s true identity

Sometimes all it takes to open up the most secretive institutions is a well-crafted FOIA request

Written by Michael Morisy
Edited by JPat Brown

Sometimes just one FOIA request can change how we think about everything - and sometimes it takes a whole fleet of requests. Whether you’re a veteran public records guru or someone just starting to get interested in government transparency, here’s some creative uses of public records we’ve seen and tips you can use.

Seen a great FOIA-based news story? Let us know and maybe we can include it in our next round up! Send it over via email, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

Peering into Palantir

On Wednesday, following months of research and reporting, Mark Harris published a 5,000-word investigation into what happened as the secretive, Peter Thiel-backed startup Palantir moved from working with intelligence agencies to selling to local police departments.

Harris’ story found that police departments deploying Palantir technology ran into a “host of problems,” including concerns about data security that went unanswered for weeks, spiraling prices, and the implications of creating “a Facebook of crime that’s both invisible and largely unaccountable to the citizens whose behavior it tracks.”

Harris was one of MuckRock’s Thiel fellows, and the story was made possible through dozens of FOIA requests that were filed with departments all across the country. If you’re interested in reading the primary documents, or checking out if your local police department has had problems with Palantir, you can read the requests for yourself and even clone and refile them in your own city.

Read Harris’ full investigation here.

Will the real Trader Joe please stand up?

Trader Joe’s is famously secretive about its suppliers, with few insiders even knowing where the real source of Trader Joe (or Trader Jose or Giotto or Jacque) items. Fortunately, FOIA was able to help with an enterprising investigation by Eater’s Vince Dixon that was beautifully illustrated to show where various items come from, or at least where they did come from at some point.

While Trader Joe’s, as a private company, is exempt from FOIA, recall notices sent by the company to the FDA and USDA are not — and those notices often included more details about the original sources of Trader Joe’s products.

And it turns out that some of the products from Trader Joe’s are coming from big name suppliers and use the exact same ingredients as much more expensive offerings available at other stores. For example, Naked’s Mango Smoothie, pictured above.

Eater also used some open data to aid its investigation, using the USDA’s nutrition database to compare ingredients and to find similar or exact matches to try and pinpoint matches.

It’s a great illustration of how FOIA can be used to tell a variety of types of stories, and how sometimes the best requests find a backdoor way to the information you want.

Problem cops that keep coming back

The Washington Post has done a number of impressive investigations that mix public records, on-the-ground reporting, and incredible presentation to tackle a range of issues, and its recent piece on police officer fired for misconduct only to be rehired continues on in that tradition.

The piece - by Kimbriell Kelly, Wesley Lowery and Steven Rich, in conjunction with American University and with design and development work by Matthew Callahan, Joe Moore, and Aaron Williams - relied on 55 public records requests sent to the 55 municipal and county police departments with the most sworn officers.

The investigation found that, of 1,881 cases of misconduct that resulted in an officer being fired, almost a quarter of the time the officer would later be reinstated.

The documents also helped the reporters illustrate exactly how serious some of those incidents were, including the shooting and killing of an unarmed man and sexually abusing a teenager in a patrol car.

The Washington Post also posted the raw documents from some of the cases on their website.

Kelly shared the request she filed to get the documents that made the story possible, including how she knew to file for the documents.

Rich shared some of his tips on how to tackle ambitious projects like this:

  1. Know agency and state deadlines. Be prepared to pester on the day declines are reached.
  2. Have a system to track requests. You will forget about some if you don’t.
  3. Ask for a lot, but be willing to settle for what will do if records laws get in the way. For example, if you can’t get a list of names, can they at least give aggregate numbers?

Send over your favorite FOIA stories via email, on Twitter, or on Facebook, and maybe we’ll include them in the next roundup.


Image by Phillip Pessar via Flickr and licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0.