DC FOIA In Action: Record Requests Proving Useful In Reporting and Civic Action

Public records obtained under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) have again been useful in reporting and advocacy in recent weeks. 

  • Police stops. Black Lives Matter and other community groups asked the Metropolitan Police Department for records they were supposed to have on officers’ stops of people in the street. Such research has shed light on biased policing in other cities so the Council several years ago ordered the data-gathering and funded it. But in response, MPD had to admit it hadn’t done the job, which triggered embarrassed testimony by the chief and deputy mayor and a pending lawsuit seeking court direction that police finally begin the work the legislature asked for.
  • Public funds for private companies. With millions of tax dollars spent on stadiums ($670 million for Nationals Park, $150 million for the new Audi Stadium soccer field at Fort McNair/Buzzard Point), interest is high in further public subsidies that some view unfavorably compared to other priorities and that may or may not pay off. The latest is the second Amazon headquarters that has drawn 238 cities and regions into a bidding war to land billions in investment and payroll--with Maryland and New Jersey putting as much as $6-7 billion in tax breaks on the table. WAMU reporter Martin Austermuhle asked to see the D.C. offer -- it’s a public record after all, to analyze what D.C. may give up in order to win the prized development. D.C. officials sent him the proposal but with financial and many other details blacked out. The thin arguments that those pages contained internal discussions and also sensitive financial details obtained from confidential outside sources didn't pass when the reporter brought an appeal to the mayor's office that by law reviews possible mistakes in agency FOIA decisions. They called the agency exemption claims overbroad and wrong on the law, ordering a do-over by the agency to get it right.  
  • Charter schools’ sweetheart contracts.  Almost half of D.C. children attend charter schools, supported by $900 million in tax dollars this coming year. Washington City Paper reporter Rachel Cohen used public records requests testing the limited transparency of charters’ finances to trace the rise of TenSquare, a consulting firm begun seven years ago by Thurgood Marshall Academy founder, Josh Kern. She reported receiving “messy, inconsistently redacted, and obviously incomplete” records when she asked the charter board for schools’ contracts with the firm. The board maybe didn't even know of, but in any case provided no record at all of, one school’s $5.8 million TenSquare contract. But with these and other sources, she pieced together enough details for a unique story on the business side of charter schools. Cohen reports pressure on troubled schools to hire the well-connected firm despite concerns over their performance and the political clout of charters that has kept at bay any further legislation to open more contracts and board members' finances open to public view and require charter schools to follow open records and open meetings laws.
  • Food stamps.  A federal judge this month ordered D.C. to act swiftly and with ongoing court oversight to correct disturbing lags in renewing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. Bread for the City and legal services clients in their earliest court filings made their case not just with heartbreaking individual accounts but backed them up with broad and deep internal government data obtained by public records requests. U.S. Department of Agriculture overseers closely watch some indicators such as prompt enrollment (and had demanded reduced delays) but feds ignore renewals with the result that D.C. processed almost half late in recent months. D.C. has the largest population fraction in all the states, around 20%, receiving food aid, so benefit delays can be devastating for many. Solving routine problems can mean lining up at government offices as early as 3 a.m. to plead for correction of paperwork and going hungry for weeks while computers catch up with real needs. The court's quick class action approval and the early relief granted stemmed from the solid facts from the government’s own records, in contrast to the long delays and jousting over details in the snail pace of discovery in the early months of the typical civil litigation.

Transparency advocates sometimes complain that public records laws aren’t used much by the public and press, with request numbers dominated by seekers of business intelligence for the private sector; or that they have failed since 2001 to puncture the secrecy walls around the federal national security sector; and that courts give powerful agencies undue deference over the average requester in litigation. But these examples show, at least at the local level in D.C., many are finding the FOIA a way to learn useful information. The Coalition stands ready to help more users make it work for them.