How to use public records to track swag and speeches

Plus a reminder that even public data can lie

Written by Michael Morisy

Some of the most interesting FOIA stories come about because someone took the time to dig into tidbits that just flew under the radar for other people. Building a habit of thinking through what documents exist around a particular subject or story you’re interested in can lead to all sorts of revelations, and that’s particularly true with this week’s inspirational FOIA examples.

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.

North Texas Daily’s Trump Jr. payday scoop

Contracts with speakers at public universities can be an endlessly fascinating peak into how money shifts hands. In this case, the University of North Texas’ North Texas Daily got its hands on the eight-page contract the university and Donald Trump, Jr. for his speaking engagement at the school.

Trump will receive a $100,000 speaking fee for his talk, which is funded by “private donors and sponsors, including the Office of the President and over 20 other UNT institutions.”

Not bad for a 30-minute talk followed by a 30-minute Q&A of pre-reviewed questions. The paper posted the entire contract. Similar requests revealed Milo Yiannopoulos was financed by Robert Mercer-linked Glittering Steel. You can see that request here, and clone it to easily file a similar request for other speaker contracts at a university near you.

And 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!

Putting the “AG” in “SWAG”

One Wisconsin Now became curious about how — and how much — Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel was spending on promotional items. Naturally, the group filed a FOIA request — and got back some interesting results:

  • Over $10,000 on “challenge coins,” some bearing Schimel’s name and the motto “Kicking Ass Every Day.”
  • Hundreds of dollars on stress balls.
  • 250 custom fortune cookies.
  • Dozens and dozens of other items, totaling over $80,000.

At MuckRock, we love good swag, but tax payer-funded swag should always be open for scrutiny to the public to ensure that it’s a sound investment of public dollars. Read our previous reporting on the U.S. Marshals Service swag, or even better snap up some pro-FOIA swag from the MuckRock store and help make sure stories like this can keep getting told.

Lies, damned lies, and bad data

OK, so not actually a FOIA or public records story at all, but a good reminder nonetheless.

WAMU has a good look at how public data, meant to name and shame polluters, got things a little off in D.C..

In public data collected by the city’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE), the Watergate East — one of the buildings in the infamous Watergate complex that ultimately helped bring down former President Richard Nixon — was far and away the heaviest polluters, letting out “nearly three times the amount of greenhouse gases as the next nine highest-emitting buildings combined,” as WAMU reported.

That number would be jaw dropping — if it were true. It turns out that there was a miscalculation with the self-reported data, but the bad press of being D.C.’s worst polluter wasn’t enough for the residential complex to double check its math.

A good reminder to always sanity check and double check claims that seem to wild to be true.

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


Photo of the Watergate Complex by Ian Mackenzie and licensed under CC BY 2.0.