What you missed from our FOIA Slack Chat with Abraham Payton

What you missed from our FOIA Slack Chat with Abraham Payton

And how to make sure you don’t miss our next chat

Written by
Edited by JPat Brown

Opposition researcher Abraham Payton joined us last Friday to discuss how his company, Due Diligence uses FOIA to investigate public figures.


One of Payton’s top documents he requests are public officials’ emails. These types of requests are often met with resistance from FOIA officers. But even so, Payton recommends that requesters use broad and vague language that might lead to a denied request. Why? To start a conversation with the officer, if nothing else.

Dear FOIA Officer,

I am requesting copies of all incoming-and-outgoing email of John Smith (smith.john@bigcity.gov) from January 1, 2017 to present.

Sincerely, Not an Opposition Researcher

Payton said that “This is deliberately broad in order to provoke engagement,” and that [P]ublic record officers are almost always willing to negotiate and pare down the request.”

After you get denied, use your research.

Editor’s Note: This was included at the author’s insistence. “Get it - information? haha.”

Free Resources:

  • Pipl: Has information based on marketing material from social networks

  • IntelTechniques: Can provide personal emails linked to one cell phone number

  • Other Resources include LexisNexis, TLOxp, and CLEAR.

For local or state-level research, FOIA the FOIAs.

Don’t just ask for the logs - request the actual FOIA requests first and then the FOIA logs, Payton advised.

“For local offices, it’s an effective way of playing catch-up on everyone’s work,” he said.

Payton also has a rapid response team that checks up on the status FOIA requests almost daily, but a lone requester can do the same by following up and contacting the agency for updates.

He also said that it helps to have team members who are local to the agency you are filing for, and recommended the Public Record Retrieval Network.

Talk it out

After you are done with your research, begin negotiating with your FOIA Officer.

“Often, they are overwhelmed by their workload and are more than willing to talk about narrowing down requests,” Payton said. One way of doing this is to give a smaller, more specific time frame.

Payton recommended looking at FOIA request templates if you are unsure about what to ask for.

Dun dudun dudun Inspector General

If you are researching someone who has been in office before, it might be helpful to file for Inspector General reports, but Payton noted that those reports might be difficult to get, as they are only released if they are completed.

Remember to join us this Friday for a chat with Mike Masnick. Our FOIA Slack Chats are a place where anyone can ask a FOIA question and anyone can answer, and sometimes we have experts with us who give great advice and often offer help after the chat to anyone with lingering questions.

Image via Wikimedia Commons