This week in our FOIA roundup, we get some tips from a reporter who has used FOIA for over 20 years, dig into the limits of presidential powers, and a new Twitter account that helps highlight how important public records are.
FOI tips from a state house pro
John O’Connor has been using public records since 1996 to open up agencies in Illinois, breaking a long string of critical stories keeping government accountable. Jackie Spinner at Columbia Journalism Review turns the tables on O’Connor and gets him to share his secrets in a recent interview.
Some of the key lessons:
- Pay attention to details (like if the governor promises to cut business ties, double check who is stopping by the governor’s mansion)
- Know the law, especially the exceptions to exemptions (our new database can help).
- Get to know what kinds of documents an agency keeps.
Read the full story to learn how to gain a “scalpel-like precision” with your FOIA work.
Can the president pardon via a tweet? ¯_(ツ)_/¯
CNN’s Jenna McLaughlin has a good look at a Department of Justice review of whether a pardon announced by the president on Twitter was binding. The documents were obtained via a FOIA request by the Government Accountability Project.
The results: Probably?
The emails, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request made by the whistleblower rights nonprofit Government Accountability Project and provided to CNN, reveal a candid exchange within the Department of Justice about the process by which the government’s legal body might be consulted on a candidate for a presidential pardon – or pushed aside, depending on the President’s whim.
The conversation arose in late July when various media outlets began writing about what would be required of Trump to issue a pardon. One DOJ employee sent around a Huffington Post article by Ryan J. Reilly referencing an interview with former US pardon attorney Margaret Love – who said Trump could grant a pardon in any form he chooses at any time. USA Today’s Gregory Korte reported that Trump could do it in a tweet.
Add more FOIA to your feed
Our friends at the Freedom of the Press Foundation have launched a new Twitter bot that parses news articles looking mentions of public records to showcase the importance of transparency in reporting.
There’s no doubt that the FOIA process is cumbersome, and in some ways, badly broken. But investigative journalism that digs into primary source documents obtained through public records laws is interesting and substantial work, and we like to shine a spotlight on that reporting.
@FOIAFeed’s results show that public records laws enable that kind of investigation across a broad cross-section of subjects. In just the last few days, it has posted stories about the political rise of certain career officials in the Trump administration, links between campaign contributions and sting operations against men who patronize sex workers, and apparent age discrimination among employees at tech giant IBM.
Send us your favorite FOIA stories
Even bots miss things occasionally Seen a great FOIA-based news story we should highlight? Let us know and maybe we can include it in our next round up! Send it over via email, on Twitter, or on Facebook.