FOIA Roundup: Steps forward for COVID-19 transparency, steps back on other fronts

FOIA Roundup: Steps forward for COVID-19 transparency, steps back on other fronts

COVID-19 is very much among us. Can FOI tell us more?

Written by
Edited by Michael Morisy

Despite COVID-19’s disappearance for a few weeks from the top headline spot, the virus is still very much among us. The widespread nature of the threat will continue to affect the markets for necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) and other goods. It will continue to wreak waves of uncertainty through the economy and instigate relief efforts with plenty of opportunities for corruption and fraud. And the effects will continue to ripple through generations of lives, as education and community are hobbled by social distancing and the difficulty of sustaining and nurturing remote systems of connection.

COVID-19: new looks and the same problems

The fullest look yet of how racial disparities are affecting COVID-19 cases is now available after the New York Times won a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Centers for Disease Control for their data on the national pandemic.

At least 35 healthcare workers who had submitted complaints to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration about their access to personal protective equipment (PPE) have died, according to an investigation from Christina Jewett, Shefali Luthra, and Melissa Bailey at Kaiser Health News.

The Hartford Courant used FOIA to ask the U.S. Postal Service for the number of New Yorkers that have switched their primary residence to Connecticut locations since the beginning of March. Read more from Christopher Keating.

The Department of Health Services in Wisconsin says it has been receiving many requests about the businesses that have had COVID-19 cases, and despite opposition from the business group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the agency says it still plans to release the information. Read more from WSAU.

The Small Business Administration (SBA) has released a list of recipients of the Paycheck Protection Program, which dispersed more than $600 billion to small businesses as part of the federal government’s COVID-19 relief program. A number of media organizations are suing the SBA for the complete dataset of disbursements.

Consumer advocacy group Knowledge Ecology International has received contracts under FOIA showing important regulatory and intellectual property protections were left out of contracts for COVID-19 pharmaceutical development being done by major companies with taxpayer funds. “This means that the government has limited its ability to intervene if the pharmaceutical companies (which are party to the agreements and are receiving hundreds of millions of dollars to conduct the research) charge unreasonable prices for the resulting Covid-19 vaccines or treatments,” KEI wrote.

Public records requests from Mahoning Matters in Ohio preceded a decision by the Mahoning County Department of Health to release case data by zip code. Read more from Justin Dennis in Mahoning Matters.

Secrecy in agencies large and small

Colman Herman at Commonwealth Magazine covered how little has changed following the Massachusetts legislature’s revision of the state public records law in 2016.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has now been designated by the Office of Personnel Management a “Security Agency,” affording it certain security protections akin to those for intelligence agencies, according to a memo obtained by Ken Klippenstein and The Nation.

Department of Commerce Inspector General Peggy Gustafson published publicly a memo sent by her office to Commerce alleging that the agency is stalling release of the IG’s report on “Sharpiegate,” the federal agency miscommunication mishandling that followed President Trump’s 2019 assertion that Alabama might be wrecked by Hurricane Dorian. The Commerce OIG says it is ready to release its full findings, but the Department is refusing make any specific claims to supposed its request that certain portions be withheld. Read more from Andrew Freedman and Jason Samenow at The Washington Post.

Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the state’s first elected Black leader, has accused the State Library of racism in response to its far-from-complete processing of his papers, despite his final year in office being 1994 and the already completed collections of his successors. Read more from Michael Martz in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

A report from the ACLU of Connecticut highlights the illegality of police union agreements that contain provisions allowing destruction or nondisclosure of records that should be disclosed to the public.

The Berne Town Board has approved a resolution disapproving of one of its members and statements he made last summer about another board member’s mental health. The town said it would release a copy of the resolution this week and a FOIL response with records on the cost of the yearlong investigation into the incident later this month. You can read more about the strife on the Berne Town Board in the Altamont Enterprise.

Just FOIA Fun

A Kickstarter campaign to create a fragrance that smells like outer space has raised more than $350 thousand. The creators claim that the same manufacturer of a NASA training smell, which they fact-checked using FOIA. “The FOIA requests were actually made before contact with Steve, and was part of our due diligence process to make sure we had all of our bases covered for the project,” Eau de Space wrote in response to a campaign question. “Our background research proved that our manufacture indeed created the fragrance for NASA, and that backers are getting an authentic product.”