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The prize, though, goes to the Oregon State Legislature, which renewed a law exempting the names of people who sell laboratory animals to Oregon Health and Sciences University, ostensibly to protect vendors from overzealous animal rights activists. InvestigateWest reporter Lee Van Der Voo obtained records (released seemingly by accident by the Oregon Department of Agriculture) that illustrated the pitfalls of shielding an industry from scrutiny. As it turns out, one of the primary primate dealers to the university had previously served time for illegally smuggling orangutans as part of the infamous "Bangkok Six" case.
Sue the Messenger Award
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson
The Sacramento News & Review filed a public records request with the City of Sacramento for communications from Mayor Kevin Johnson's office regarding how the former basketball star and his staff allegedly engineered the collapse of the National Conference of Black Mayors. The Sacramento City Attorney's Office agreed that the emails were public, but then Johnson's legal team threatened to file a lawsuit against SNR unless it abandoned its quest for transparency. SNR refused, Johnson sued, and now the story has been stalled as the case plays out through a protracted legal process. It remains to be seen whether the case will wrap up before Johnson leaves office next year.
The Culture of Secrecy Award
Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services
Back in 2010 and 2011, the Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader filed Open Records Act requests with the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services for information related to child fatalities. The agency balked at providing many of the records, forcing the newspapers to sue.
A lower level court ruled in the newspapers' favor and ordered the agency to pay $1 million in penalties and fees. Rather than let it go at that, the cabinet appealed, only to dig itself deeper into the hole. After oral arguments in October 2015, the appeals court sided with the media and issued this juicy condemnation:
"The Cabinet's conduct in this case was indeed egregious. The face of the record reveals the 'culture of secrecy' of which the trial court spoke; and it evinces an obvious and misguided belief that the Open Records Act is merely an ideal — a suggestion to be taken when it is convenient and flagrantly disregarded when it is not."
The Most "Helpful" Redactions Award
Office of the Director of National Intelligence
Redactions are a way of life in FOIA, but a response that the American Civil Liberties Union received from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) in September takes this year's award for the most ridiculous misuse of the black marks.
For years, the ACLU has been demanding access to records documenting the government's "targeted killing" program. In ODNI's response to the ACLU, it claimed to be releasing an eight-page letter that ODNI Director James Clapper sent to ranking senators on the US Intelligence Committee. That statement was belied by the fact that ODNI withheld nearly every word of the letter, save for the page numbers, names, and addresses of the senators it was sent to, and a concluding paragraph from Clapper. The redactions were so all-encompassing, there was no way to know what the subject of the letter was and whether it actually discussed the targeted killing program.
The kicker? The unredacted paragraph at the end of the letter began, "We hope this information has been helpful."
Yeah, real helpful. Keep up the FOIA trolling, ODNI.
Exhibit Inhibition Award
US Department of Justice
The US Department of Justice (DOJ) believes that exhibits it used in open court when prosecuting a physician convicted of illegally distributing prescription drugs are not, in fact, public records. The DOJ staked out this curious position in a long-running FOIA dispute with Rhode Island-based reporter Phil Eil after he filed a request for copies of the exhibits that prosecutors used during the 2011 trial of Dr. Paul Volkman. After stalling for several years and requiring Eil to sue for the records, the DOJ proposed to release the records in heavily redacted form.
Of course, anyone who attended the trial would have been able to see the records without the DOJ's redactions, which the DOJ claims were in part necessary to protect law enforcement concerns — despite the fact that it had aired those records in open court.
The Still-Interested Pat Down Award
Transportation Security Administration
Like the airport security line on a busy travel day, the TSA's backlog of FOIA responses just seems to keep growing. That's according to a compliance review by the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), one in a series of reports on various agency-components of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). OGIS found a nearly 70-percent, year-over-year rise in the backlog of unfilled requests — up to 924 in 2014 — despite a small drop in the number of incoming requests.
How does TSA get through those old requests? Unfortunately, it turned to the dreaded "still-interested letter," checking to see if requesters still care enough to want an answer. TSA sends those out after a case has gone unclosed for four years — and, contrary to DOJ guidance, allows only ten days for requesters to respond.