MARCH 17, 2008
Today marks the start of the annual nationwide effort that draws attention to the importance of open government but this year’s Sunshine Week will be tainted with dark clouds of serious disclosure regressions at the federal and state levels.
Most government agencies routinely fail to disclose information requested under a 1967 law, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), that gives people the power to request information from federal government files. Amended in 2002, the law orders government agencies to make public information such as rules, opinions, orders, records and proceedings.
Violations were so rampant that President George W. Bush signed an Executive Order in 2005 forcing agencies to disclose information and decrease the huge backlog of public requests that had been ignored over the years. Despite the order, most federal agencies have failed to make a dent in their huge backlog of unanswered FOIA requests.
Among agencies that continue violating the Executive Order are the Department of Homeland Security (backlog grew from 82,544 requests to 83,661), the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Treasury Department, which was criticized in a recent audit as repeatedly trying to “wait out the requester.”
At the state and local level the major issue is reluctance among elected officials to disclose electronic mail and text messages, which have become a popular way of communicating. Officially, emails are treated like paper documents and subject to Freedom of Information requests yet officials carefully choose which to turn over and which to delete.
There are many recent nationwide examples of this selective disclosure of emails or text messages containing crucial public information. Violators include big city mayors, governors and other local elected officials who have withheld potentially damaging information from their taxpayer-funded equipment.
Among them is New Jersey’s disgraced former governor, who resigned amid a scandal involving a homosexual affair with a staff member and Detroit’s controversial mayor, who withheld scathing text messages proving his involvement in a sex and perjury scandal. A local newspaper had to sue in court to obtain the text messages after its request was denied by the city.
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