FOIA Roundup: Trump transparency now and in the future, plus Michigan’s big FOIA fights

FOIA Roundup: Trump transparency now and in the future, plus Michigan’s big FOIA fights

MuckRock’s weekly roundup of triumphs and troubles in public records

Written by
Edited by Michael Morisy

There’s a new occupant in the White House, but scandals documented via FOIA are still trickling out about the Trump administration. What FOIA is and isn’t getting about the last administration (at least anytime son), plus using privacy software to evade transparency in Michigan, are all in this week’s FOIA Roundup.

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Five anti-vaxx groups, spreading misinformation about COVID-19, were PPP loan beneficiaries

The Payroll Protection Program was designed to help small businesses cope with the economic impact of the pandemic, but some recipients are helping prolong it. Over $850,000 from the COVID emergency loan program went to five prominent anti-vaccine organizations known to spread misinformation, according to newly released records on Paycheck Protection Program data from the Small Business Administration. Some of these groups have been penalized by social media platforms for posting misleading information about COVID-19. The data were released after the Washington Post, New York Times, ProPublica, Dow Jones, and Bloomberg won a FOIA lawsuit against the Small Business Administration in December 2020. Read more from Elizabeth Dwoskin and Aaron Gregg at the Washington Post.

FOIA’s role in fresh charges against former Michigan governor over Flint water crisis

Former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder was charged with willful neglect of duty over his handling of the Flint water crisis. A series of FOIA requests made by the ACLU of Michigan and Virginia Tech researchers revealed that the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (MDEQ) purposefully concealed the extent of lead contamination in Flint’s water and later tried to cover up its mistake. These findings prompted Snyder to release records on his own poor dealing of the crisis and inspired a bipartisan attempt to remove exemptions of the governor and legislature from open records requests. Read more from Anna Clark at ProPublica.

Most records from the Trump White House won’t be available until 2026

Last week, the U.S. National Archives launched the Trump Presidential Library online, but the website only features limited information for now. Moreover, since official presidential records can only be obtained through FOIA requests five years after a president leaves office, most records from the Trump administration will not be available until 2026. Trump reportedly destroyed documents despite rules under the Presidential Records Act. The public will have to wait to find out what records survived. Read more from Matt Novak at Gizmodo.

Michigan police dogde FOIA through encrypted messaging apps

Court records show that top officials at the Michigan State Police ––including its FOIA officer and the manager of its records section––downloaded encrypted messaging applications onto their state-issued phones to hide — and in some cases destroy — their communications. Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act specifies that most records of communications between public officials are public records. The use of encryption devices appears to violate the state’s FOIA regulations as well as the spirit of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive directive, which forbids agencies from disposing of certain written communications. Read more from Paul Egan at Detroit Free Press.

DHS sued over FOIA requests for its social media surveillance tactics

The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for its alleged failure to respond to three FOIA requests dating back to 2019. The nonprofit was looking for records concerning how the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) regularly screen applicants’ social media accounts when deciding whether to grant them citizenship. “Constitutional rights are at stake,” according to the CDT. Read more from Shoshana Wodinsky at Gizmodo.

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