Author: publicrecordsgeek

Arizona reporter recognized for ‘tireless pursuit of public records’

Arizona Daily Star reporter Carli Brosseau

Arizona Daily Star reporter Carli Brosseau

Arizona Daily Star reporter Carli Brosseau was recently honored with a Sledgehammer Award for her “tireless pursuit of public records” while reporting on her state’s immigration law.

The award, given by the Arizona Press Club, recognizes reporters “who relentlessly hunt for the truth despite obstacles thrown their way.”

“When told by police departments she couldn’t scan public records related to SB 1070 and would have to pay for copies, she pushed the Arizona Ombudsman to request an opinion from the Arizona Attorney General,” the press club wrote. “The resulting opinion says journalists and the public may use smart phones to scan and photograph records instead of paying for copies. As a result, several police departments have changed their public-records policies.”

On a separate story, Carli wrote about the South Tucson City Council’s refusal to make executive-session agendas more specific. As a result, the council made changes.

I reached out to Carli and asked her to tell me more about her immigration story and how she pushed for the public records. Here’s how she did it:

My colleague Perla Trevizo and I set out last fall to follow up on Arizona’s immigration law SB 1070. There was a huge uproar about it when it passed in 2010, and again in 2012 when the courts allowed the law’s so-called “show me your papers” provision to go into effect in September 2012. Then, nothing. We thought it would be interesting to see what actually happened. Basically, we wanted to answer the question, “What effects did that provision actually have?”

We decided to take a region-wide look and request records from 13 law-enforcement agencies around Southern Arizona. That included four counties and the Arizona Department of Public Safety. The rest were city or town police departments. We first inquired about how each department records calls to immigration authorities and found that efforts to track immigration inquiries varied widely.

DPS had a fabulous database, Tucson police had a paper system, some departments used special circumstance codes to flag reports, some could do keyword searches and others had nothing at all. Once we figured out the systems, we had to request the records, which generally took months to get.

We asked for every related log, list or spreadsheet, and then incident reports from each agency. In some cases, we reduced our request to samples of the incident reports; in others, we reviewed every immigration-related case. With every agency, we followed up at least weekly, sometimes more frequently, to make sure that progress was being made. We had two interns, Amer Taleb and Britain Eakin, who helped us with that.

It felt like we got every excuse in the book: No responsive records, over-broad request, impossible to retrieve the records, refusal to provide records electronically, charges even to inspect the documents, refusal to allow us to use a scanner. But we persisted and got documents from every agency, largely without paying fees.

One thing that made a huge difference was that I asked the Arizona assistant ombudsman for public access to request that the attorney general issue an opinion on record fees. The AG’s opinion clarified that agencies cannot charge if you request to inspect records, even if they need to do redactions first. It also suggested that scanning was equivalent to inspecting a document as there is no cost to the taxpayers.

Perla and I were also able to get some departments to pledge to improve their record-keeping. Douglas Police Department added a circumstance code that would flag immigration-related cases. South Tucson Police Department considered adding a circumstance code, but ultimately created a new paper form after negotiations with the ACLU over a related legal claim. Tucson Police Department said this week that they plan to launch a database with fields expanded from their original paper form. That made me very happy; we had so-far scanned almost 4,000 forms (3 months worth) before cleaning and mapping the data, something we plan to continue to do. We’ve also continued to follow up on data improvements to give credit to changes that have happened since.

Many thanks to Carli for sharing her story. You can read more of her work on her website and follow her on Twitter @carlibrosseau.


Real estate agent: ‘That’s not public record, is it?’

Million Dollar Listing New York

Ryan negotiates with Janet on Million Dollar Listing New York. (Bravo TV)

I was watching TV the other day when I came across a show called “Million Dollar Listing New York,” which follows three real estate agents in New York City.

I was half listening to the show when all of a sudden my ears perked up.

“That’s not public record, is it?” one of the agents, Ryan Serhant, asked.

I watched as Ryan used New York’s Freedom of Information Law to help negotiate a deal for a multimillion-dollar apartment. The building manager, Janet, wanted $6.5 million, but Ryan’s client was offering $5.75 million.

Here’s how Ryan used the public records law to his advantage:

Janet: The offer that you presented for this vista is just not going to make it.

Ryan: I completely get everything you’re saying, and I really, really appreciate you taking the time to meet me. I just don’t think it’s worth north of $2,900 a foot.

Janet: There’s no way that you’re going to be able to find an apartment like this at this price range.

Ryan: What’s the most recent three-unit combination that’s closed in the last year?

Janet: How about last week? We sold it for $6.9 (million).

Ryan: And that’s not public record, is it?

Janet: No, no. The deal will be probably signed this afternoon. We have another one that is in the process of closing …

Ryan: Process?

Janet: The process.

Ryan’s voiceover: I understand why Janet is quoting me these pending deals, but the truth is that they’re pending, and a comp isn’t really a comp until it’s closed.

Ryan: What’s the highest price per square foot that’s closed in the last six months, that’s closed publicly? Do you know? There’s (an apartment) that sold at, like, $2,600 a foot, and that’s a public record.

Ryan goes on to tell Janet that he can ask his client to offer more money but that he will not pay $2,900 a square foot, because there’s no public record showing that anyone has paid that price.

Ryan: So, I need a counter (offer) from you.

Janet: The name of the game is let’s make a deal, OK?

Ryan: I like you. That’s the name of my game, too.

Janet: So, let’s try to make a deal, and I’m going to go from $6.5 down to $6.3 (million).

Ryan eventually got her down to $6.1 million, and they closed the deal. He got the apartment for his client at a reduced rate and made $183,000 in commission, thanks to some smart negotiating and a little help from New York’s Freedom of Information Law.

Should prisons have to reveal names of execution drug suppliers?

North Carolina death chamber (Kelly Hinchcliffe/WRAL)

North Carolina’s death chamber (Kelly Hinchcliffe/WRAL)

Should prison officials have to reveal the names of the companies that supply their execution drugs? In Texas, the answer is no.

State officials “say the compounding pharmacy providing the drug should remain secret in order to protect it from threats of violence,” according to a story by Associated Press reporter Nomaan Merchant. “Lawyers for death row inmates say they need its name to verify the drugs’ potency and protect inmates from cruel and unusual punishment.”

Similar legal fights are happening in other death penalty states, including Oklahoma and Missouri.

“Death penalty states have been scrambling to find new sources of drugs after several drugmakers, including many based in Europe, refused to sell drugs for use in lethal injections,” Merchant wrote. “That’s led several states to compounding pharmacies, which are not as heavily regulated by the Food and Drug Administration as more conventional pharmacies.”

Merchant asked Texas law enforcement officials to tell him what threats execution drug suppliers were facing, but they declined to say.

I’m not sure if North Carolina – where I live – has ever released the name of the drug company or companies it has used. I’ll have to find out. Do you know what the law is your state? Is that information public record?

On a related note, I visited North Carolina’s death row a few years ago with one of my colleagues, David Crabtree. He interviewed a death row inmate, and I took pictures inside the cells and the death chamber.

A death row inmate paces the floor inside his pod as a guard stands watch at Central Prison in Raleigh. (Kelly Hinchcliffe/WRAL)

A death row inmate paces the floor inside his pod as a guard stands watch at Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C. (Kelly Hinchcliffe/WRAL)

Records show federal agencies struggle with porn problem

“For two hours a day, a General Services Administration employee visited dating websites, scoured the Internet for pornography and even maintained a user account at an X-rated social networking site.”

That’s how reporter Jim McElhatton began his May 11 story in The Washington Times. He filed a Freedom of Information Act request and found that federal agencies were struggling with a major porn problem.

“The details were startling,” McElhatton wrote. “An unidentified employee, at the GS-14 pay band earning up to $138,000 a year in Washington based on locality pay, had about 7,000 pornographic images on his work computer. He was even watching porn when an agent showed up at his desk to interview him, according to the EPA’s office of inspector general.”

The problem went beyond employees watching porn at work. The websites they were visiting posed a security risk, McElhatton found, “giving computer viruses inroads to attack government servers.”

While McElhatton did this story on a national level, the same can be done at a local level. Have you ever filed a public records request to see what websites government officials in your area are visiting?

The Tampa Bay Times did in 2006 and found that three county commissioners visited various sites during commission meetings, even while members of the public spoke before them.

“Ted Schrader tracks stocks on Fellow Pasco County Commissioner Steve Simon favors eBay and golf-related sites like Commissioner Pat Mulieri fiddles with her America Online e-mail account,” the paper found.

What’s happening in your area? File a public records request. I’d love to know what you find.

Charlotte paper posts school salaries and more

For years, The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina has posted public school employees’ salaries. This year, the paper decided to post more information.

“After working on an article about pay at community colleges, I realized there are additional sources of income, including state longevity pay. So I requested all of those sources,” education reporter Ann Doss Helms explained to readers.

The Charlotte Observer’s database now includes total compensation from salaries, bonuses, longevity pay, overtime, stipends for extra duties, allowances and fringe benefits – all of which are reported as income to the IRS.

The paper has also posted charter school salaries for the first time, which were difficult to get.

“The charter list was challenging, and not only because of the state’s misfire in initially saying charter schools weren’t required to provide the data,” Doss Helms wrote. “Each charter school is essentially its own district, which meant that even after that mistake was corrected and schools provided the data, it came from different sources in different formats, often with different job titles and abbreviations.”

So, why post salary information and people’s names? Doss Helms does a great job of explaining her process and why it’s important for the public to have access to the information.

An anonymous commenter agreed: “As a teacher who certainly has his salary listed on the CMS salary database…That was one of the best defenses of public disclosure of salary information for public employees that I have ever read. Keep up the good work :)”

The Charlotte Observer focuses on more than just schools. It has an extensive data center on it’s website, which includes salaries for state government, community colleges, universities, city employees and county employees. Readers can also search delinquent tax records, restaurant inspection reports and more.

Dallas reporter shows why it pays to check the checks

Michael Kooiman / Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy: Mkooiman/Wikimedia Commons

Years ago, when I was an education reporter, I asked the school system I was covering to tell me who had school-issued credit cards so I could look through the statements to see what they were buying. In all that time, you know what I never thought to ask for? Something old school — checks.

I could have kicked myself as I listened to Tawnell Hobbs, an education reporter at The Dallas Morning News, talk recently about the great stories she has done by requesting her school system’s check registers.

“I get them every month. That’s somebody sitting there with a checkbook writing checks,” she said, speaking at the Education Writers Association Conference in Nashville. “On its face it’s not that sexy, but it can be.”

Tawnell found that the Dallas Independent School District “spent at least $57 million over four years — or one year’s average base pay for 1,086 teachers — on purchases such as pricey meals, costly trips, lucrative consulting contracts and overnight stays at hotels in the Dallas area and beyond.”

She also found that the school system spent more than $300,000 at Atlanta Bread Co., about $86,000 at Chick-fil-A and at least $1.7 million on promotional items, such as mugs, wristbands, T-shirts and hats.

No matter what beat you cover, you can ask to see public agencies’ check registers. Tawnell suggests asking for a spreadsheet with the following information: check number, check date, check amount, document number, item description, account, check amount and vendor name.

Before putting in your request, find out who keeps the information and try to talk with them. They might compile extra information that you didn’t think to ask for.

Tawnell shared some other great public records ideas during her presentation, including:

  • Purchase orders
  • Credit card info
  • Paycheck info
  • Budgets
  • Grants

“Make sure those grants are being used properly and they’re not out there buying pizzas with them,” she said.

When making requests and looking through records, Tawnell says to watch out for these red flags:

  • Credit card purchases for even amounts (possibly gift cards)
  • Understaffing in an office overseeing purchases
  • Frequent change orders and/or budget amendments
  • Big budget swings
  • Decreasing reserve or emergency fund
  • Back-to-back purchases to stay under the radar (if there is a dollar limit per purchase)

To read more of Tawnell’s stories, check out her blog. You can also follow her on Twitter @Tawnell.

‘I’ve had trouble getting info from charter schools’

Education Writers AssociationI recently attended an Education Writers conference in Nashville, where many talented reporters shared their tips for covering schools. During one class, a woman from Florida raised her hand and told the panelists that she has struggled getting public records from charter schools in her area. She asked for their advice, and I quickly typed down what they said so I could share it with you. Here’s my rough transcript of that discussion

Woman from Florida: I’ve had trouble getting info from charter schools … Do you have any tips, advice?

Dan Mihalopoulos, Chicago-Sun Times reporter: Some of them are not used to being FOIAed … The best thing you can do is just try to familiarize them gently with what you’re asking for. They don’t have huge staffs. Try to let them know what you want and (ask) how they keep the records … It shouldn’t be that difficult for them, but some of them aren’t used to it.

Liz Bowie, Baltimore Sun reporter: I think there’s an increasing push back from school systems and (other agencies). I think they’re much slower to respond or say, ‘No we’re not going to give you that’ or ‘It’s going to be $10,000’ … In the old days, we would fight like crazy, and they knew we would fight … I think now they’re recognizing there’s not as much money in newsrooms (and not as much money for lawyers) … We need to keep pushing back. We stopped for awhile, and now we’re paying the price.”

Audience member: Know your charter school law.

It was a great discussion on a topic that a lot of reporters struggle with – not just education reporters. What do you do if an agency denies your public records request? Frank LoMonte, a first amendment lawyer with the Student Law Press Association, had this great piece of advice for reporters in another session. If an agency says a record is not public, say, ‘Can you show me in the law where it says that?’

Have you had trouble getting public records from a government agency? Let me know on Twitter @RecordsGeek or by email,

P.S. – If you or someone from your newsroom has an interest in attending an Education Writers Association conference, the next one will be held in Chicago in 2015. I highly recommend it. You can apply for an EWA scholarship to help with the cost of conference fees, travel and lodging.