Ask Kelly: What public records questions do you have?

Since I started this blog, I’ve had a lot of people ask me for advice about public records, which is great. I love answering their questions, and if I don’t know the answer, I will find someone who does.

That has inspired me to start “Ask Kelly.” Each week, I’ll answer your questions and concerns. All you have to do is fill out this form:

 

‘Attitude every day’ and other complaints about the CIA’s cafeteria

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – FOIA and public records requests don’t always have be serious. Ask for off-the-wall records and you can find some really fascinating stories – stories I guarantee your competitors won’t have.

The FOIA experts over at MuckRock published a fun one recently about CIA officials’ complaints about their cafeteria.

“Why can’t there be nicer food handlers? Attitude every day,” one perturbed CIA official wrote. 

Another official was annoyed that the Jazz Salad did not include grapes.

“Grapes are in the title of the salad. I asked about them, and the server pointed to the cherry tomatos [sic], said they were grapes. I said, “no, those are tomatos [sic], soooo should I just get grapes from the salad bar … I do not condone putting salad bar items into a Jazz Salad.”

Washington Post reporter Abby Phillip did a nice write-up of six of the more interesting complaints.

If you need inspiration to file your own random records request, here are some stories I and others have done:

I’d love to know what interesting public records you’ve found. Write to me at kahinchcliffe@gmail.com or on Twitter @RecordsGeek.

Boston reporter shares love of data, records

Boston Globe reporter Todd Wallack

Boston Globe reporter Todd Wallack

“I’m a reporter for the Boston Globe. I love data and public records.”

As soon as I read Todd Wallack’s Twitter bio, I knew I wanted to follow him and check out his work. I reached out to him to see what public records and data stories he’s done lately, and he sent me two great examples.

In June, he looked at campaign finance data and found that Massachusetts candidates spend thousands of dollars a year on coffee and doughnuts. Using some really creative graphics, Todd was able to show that candidates in state and major local races have spent more than $157,000 at Dunkin’ Donuts since 2002. The biggest coffee and doughnut spender was Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, whose campaign spent more than $15,000.

The other story Todd sent me involved the state Department of Children and Families, which has been slow to respond to public records requests.

“The heightened interest in DCF comes after several children under the agency’s watch have been found dead in recent months, sparking a wave of media attention and requests from reporters and lawmakers for information,” Todd wrote.

“The deaths triggered intense, often critical media coverage as reporters started asking for information showing how frequently caseworkers visited children, how many other children have died or gone missing, and how often the state placed children with parents with criminal records.”

Even when the agency did answer requests, Todd found, it sometimes took months or demanded fees so high that reporters balked at paying them, delaying the requests further.


Many thanks to Todd for sharing these stories with me. If you’d like to learn more about his work, follow him on Twitter @TWallack.

Reporter tells story of North Dakota’s nameless dead

Grand Forks Herald reporter Jennifer Johnson

Grand Forks Herald reporter Jennifer Johnson

Whenever I meet fellow reporters, I love to find out what they’re working on and what interesting stories they’ve done. Jennifer Johnson, a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota, recently asked me that question when we met at the Education Writers conference in Nashville.

She wanted to know what stories I’ve done at WRAL.com, so I mentioned one I did last fall about North Carolina’s nameless dead. I told her that 115 people have been found dead in my state since 1975, and their names are still unknown. I explained that I was able to get information about the cases through a publicly available database called NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

I offered to look up the cases in North Dakota, where Jennifer lives, and found that there was only one in the entire state – a Hispanic man, believed to be in his 40s, who was found dead one week before Christmas 2003 in Grand Forks, where Jennifer lives.

Earlier this week, Jennifer told his story:

Unidentified body found over a decade ago only case of its kind in North Dakota

It was fascinating (and sad) to read about this unknown man and the pieces of his life that investigators are trying to put together. Jennifer did a great job telling his story and explaining how he was discovered, what clues were found in his pockets and why the lead investigator still thinks about the unknown man every day.

If you’d like to get information about the nameless dead in your state, check out the NamUs database. You can search for cases by state, sex, race, ethnicity, age and more. Each case includes the medical examiner’s case number, the circumstances of the person’s death, physical and medical descriptions, descriptions and photos of clothing and accessories and, occasionally, a headshot from the autopsy or a sketch of the person.

Unidentified people

TV producer’s story inspires others to request family records

I received so much great feedback after writing about my coworker, WRAL-TV producer Miranda Dotson, who requested her grandfather’s military records and surprised her father with what she found.

Many of you reached out to tell me that you plan to request your family members’ military records, too.

Jim McElhatton, a reporter at The Washington Times, shared his own experience with me. Last year, he received military records for his late father, who was a pilot in the Navy.

“No medals or war stories, but very proud of what I learned,” Jim told me. He sent me a link to a blog he wrote about his father’s records. It’s very touching, definitely worth reading. Here’s a snippet:

While given high marks as an aviator, “his most valuable asset is his deep concern for the welfare of his men,” one performance review said.

I’d love to know what fascinating things you uncover about your family members. You can reach me on Twitter @RecordsGeek or by email, kahinchcliffe@gmail.com.

TV producer’s records request leads to sweet surprise for dad

Miranda Dotson (left) with her father, John, and sister, Rebecca, and their grandfather's medals.

Miranda Dotson (left) with her father, John, sister, Rebecca, and their grandfather’s medals. (Photo courtesy of the Dotson family)

Journalists spend a lot of time digging up records for stories, but not every request has to be work-related. Have you ever requested a record that’s personal to you? My coworker Miranda Dotson did and has graciously agreed to share her story.

Miranda is a producer at WRAL-TV in Raleigh. Last year, she decided to find out more about her late grandfather, Jack Dotson, who served in the Army in World War II, Korea and North Africa. He retired as a Master Sergeant and passed away in 1998.

She filed a request with the National Archives to see what medals her grandfather received while he was in the military – he was awarded more than a dozen. She was able to order the medals and surprise her dad with them this past weekend as a belated Father’s Day gift.

“Giving my dad the medals went great! He was so overwhelmed to receive them,” Miranda wrote. “We (my sister, Rebecca and I) decided to wrap up the Purple Heart first and have him open it. Then, as he was trying to figure out how we had gotten it, he opened up the box with all the other medals laid out. He was speechless.”

Miranda also learned that her grandfather was in the military police and had received two bronze stars.

Requesting military records can be a little tricky and time-consuming, but as Miranda’s story proves, it is worth the effort. Here’s how Miranda did it:

I looked into requesting medals last year, in August. Archives.gov has a link to request them, and it worked out in my favor that the Army considers eldest grandchild next-of-kin (it’s the only branch that does). So I solicited my mom for help and she sent me the information about my grandfather: birth and death dates, service dates, SSN and military ID#, etc., all without my dad knowing.

The website has an online form you can fill out or you can print out a form and mail the information in. I ended up mailing what I knew. The records department matched my information with my grandfather and sent back a more complete list of medals he was awarded.

I didn’t receive the confirmation that the request was approved until the end of December. It took until April for the medals to actually arrive. There was one medal that he was given by Belgium. The archives department told me I would have to order that either online or at a military surplus store. That was the only award I had to pay for – the rest, from the U.S. government, were re-issued at no cost.

Jack Dotson (Photo courtesy of Dotson family)

Jack Dotson (Photo courtesy of the Dotson family)

Here is the list my grandfather was awarded:

Silver Star
Bronze Star
Purple Heart
Army Commendation Medal
American Campaign Medal
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal
World War II Victory Medal
National Defense Service Medal
Combat Infantryman Badge 1st Award
Expert Badge with Pistol Bar
Army of Occupation of Germany Medal WWI
Korea Defense Service Medal
Belgian Fourragere (issued by Belgium – this is the one I had to find elsewhere)


Do you want to request military records? Here’s how it works:

The National Personnel Records Center holds the historical records of nearly 100 million veterans and responds to more than 1.4 million records requests each year, according to the National Archives. The vast majority of those records are paper-based and not available online. They can be used for things like proving military service or as a tool in genealogical research.

Accessing these records depends on several different factors. Some of the older records are open to the general public and are based on when the veteran separated from the military. Other records are only available to the veterans and their family members. More details are available on the National Archives’ website.

This public records headline will grab your attention

I’ve been working on a public records story for the past few weeks and have been struggling with the headline. Do I include the words “public records”? Will that bore people? How about “access” or “transparency”? While these topics are fascinating to me, I know not everyone feels the same.

That’s why I was impressed when I came across this headline from The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash. That simple black box says it all.