This week’s FOIA roundup: FOIA arrives late and over budget, but still lots of stories to tell

This week’s FOIA roundup: FOIA arrives late and over budget, but still lots of stories to tell

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

Written by
Edited by Michael Morisy

Bullet trains and FOIA don’t often mix (snack cars aside) but this week’s FOIA roundup has inside details on California’s transportation dreams and much more, including police misconduct, legal misrepresentation, and more.

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Cleveland pays millions of dollars every year to settle police misconduct cases

Police misconduct is costing Cleveland millions of dollars every year, report Amelia Thomson-Devaux, Laura Bronner, and Damini Sharma at The Marshall Project. In a high-profile case in 2014, a police officer fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice and the city paid the family $6 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit. But such a payoff was not a rare case for the Ohio city. According to public records obtained by FiveThirtyEight and The Marshall Project, the city paid $7.9 million in 2017 and $6 million in 2019 in settlements related to police misconduct. At the same time, the city’s incomplete record-keeping leaves more questions to be answered. Read more at The Marshall Project and see requests for similar data that you can use for your own FOIA inspiration.

People facing serious criminal charges are being assigned ineligible attorneys

In Maine, the only state in America with no public defenders, defendants facing serious criminal charges like murders are being represented by lawyers who are legally ineligible to deal with such cases. Following six months of negotiations, The Maine Monitor and ProPublica paid the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services (MCILS) $5,333 for a portion of the data that they initially requested in January 2020. These records show that in the past five years, more than 2,000 serious criminal cases, from murders to children charged with felonies, have been assigned to ineligible attorneys. Read more from Samantha Hogan at The Maine Monitor and Agnel Philip at ProPublica.

The governor of California is pushing for a seawater desalination plant detrimental to the environment

California may soon see one of the country’s biggest seawater desalination plants, which is expected to undermine a number of the state’s environmental policies. The project has received wide criticisms from environmental advocates because the plant would consume a large amount of electricity and require considerable ocean intake harmful to marine life. Emails obtained through a FOIA request indicate that Gov. Gavin Newsom may have stepped in to influence a water board’s review of the facility. In fact, records show that he made the usual decision to replace a board member who was highly critical of the project at the last minute. Read more from Bettina Boxall at The Los Angeles Times.

Police contracts in New Jersey are costing the public hundreds of millions of dollars

Dubious provisions in New Jersey’s police union agreements are giving law enforcement officers extravagant benefits, costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. ProPublica and The Asbury Park Press found through a FOIA request that police contracts in many New Jersey municipalities are exploiting legal loopholes and protecting payouts to officers that the towns could hardly afford. In one case, a police contract allowed a retiring lieutenant to get paid $121,000 for unused sick time. Some contract terms are also making it difficult to hold local law enforcement accountable for misconduct. Read more from Agnes Chang, Jeff Kao and Agnel Philip at ProPublica.

California’s rail authority turned a blind eye to the surging costs of a bullet train project

A supposedly low-cost California rail project is seeing increased costs and prolonged delays. When the rail authority first found a contractor in 2014, the company promised a $300 million reduction in costs by changing the initial design of the 65-mile bullet train section. Seven years later, however, most of the proposed design alterations did not happen, leading to a more than $800 million increase in the construction budget. Officials reportedly failed to hold the contractor accountable for these additional costs. Through a public records request, The Los Angeles Times found that the rail authority justified the surge in costs by arguing that it would help meet a federal grant deadline. Read more from Ralph Vartabedian at The Los Angeles Times.

Header image of JR East Shinkansen trains in October 2012 by Rsa and licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0