Using FOIA to dig into shady parking lot deals and secretive sports teams

Plus: Quartz’ behind the scenes look at the chaotic travel ban

Written by Michael Morisy
Edited by JPat Brown

You don’t have to be a journalist to use FOIA - in fact, some of the best requests I’ve seen have come from former or current government employees. In this week’s FOIA roundup, a few requests from public officials that have potential to show wrongdoing as well as other examples of using public records for impact.

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.

Following the money to a suspicious parking lot

It’s easy for municipal contracts and bidding processes to get overlooked. Sometimes it takes an insider to know where to look.

That might have been the case with Macomb County, as Jim Kiertzner of WXYZ reported:

Four bids were submitted by contractors and one was recommended to get the work for $103,950.

But a year later, a company that did not big was paid $254,000 for the same job. And after that, he was given a second parking lot job for another 264,000.

The documents were among several obtained in a FOIA request to the township by former Supervisor Mark Grabow because he thought the projects didn’t add up.

On Monday, the feds charged Chris Sorrentino in a case that alleges he did no work, was paid and gave kickbacks totaling $66,000 to an elected official not named by the feds.

Boxes of responsive documents were reportedly handed over to federal investigators, who ultimately charged the contractor, Chris Sorrentino, with one count of structuring financial transactions to avoid currency reporting requirements — and accusing him of providing financial kickbacks in exchange for the plum parking lot deal:

According to the attorney’s office, Sorrentino allegedly accepted a check from Macomb Township, at the direction of a Macomb Township elected official, in November 2014. The check was for work Sorrentino didn’t perform, according to the attorney’s office.

The same official then told Sorrentino to pay him a kickback of $66,000, and in order to do that, Sorrentino allegedly wrote seven checks for less than $10,000, then caused the checks to be cashed, giving the $66,000 to the elected official.

Sometimes its tough to get a coach to play ball

Frustrated that with college football just days away the University of Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh still hadn’t released his player roster, NJ.com’s Mark Heim turned to public records requests.

Yup, just like you can use public records to get coaches’ contracts, Heim was trying to use it to get a simple player roster - data colleges are usually happy to provide online.

The Washington Post and New York Times have obtained classified documents easier than this,” griped Ryan Dunleavy.

Fortunately, there was a happy ending — after an initial denial that there were “no responsive documents.” Eventually the coach tweeted out the responsive documents himself:

White House watch: USCIS caught off guard by Trump’s travel ban

The chaos around Trump’s announcement of a ban on travelers from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen was well reported, but thanks to FOIA we can get a peak at the chaos inside the agencies charged with actually implementing it.

Quartz’ David Yanofsky reports:

The ban was signed on January 27, a Friday. But just hours before the ban was signed Andrew J. Davidson, a senior member of the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate at USCIS, wrote to a small number of his colleagues that “we need immediate clarification in Section 3(c).” Davidson was referencing the part of the order that barred people from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen from entry into the US. USCIS processes applications from people already living in the US as well as those outside of it seeking to come.

Quartz posted the full documents they received.

Another resource for FOIA inspiration

If you’re a student feeling inspired by these public records wins, make sure to apply for free Org accounts — plus FOIA coaching and money for records fees — by Sept. 22!

And if whether or not you’re a student, send over your favorite FOIA stories via email, on Twitter, or on Facebook, and maybe we’ll include them in the next roundup.


Image via Warner Bros.