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The Data Disappearance Award - Trump Administration
Last year, we gave the "Make America Opaque Again Award" award to newly inaugurated President Trump for failing to follow tradition and release his tax returns during the campaign. His talent for refusing to make information available to the public has snowballed into an administration that deletes public records from government websites. From the National Park Service's climate action plans for national parks, to the U.S.D.A. animal welfare datasets, to nonpartisan research on the corporate income tax, the Trump Administration has decided to make facts that don't support its positions disappear. The best example of this vanishing game is the Environmental Protection Agency's removal of the climate change website in April 2017, which only went back online after being scrubbed of climate change references, studies, and information to educate the public.
The Danger in the Dark Award - The Army Corps of Engineers
When reporters researching the Dakota Access Pipeline on contested tribal lands asked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' environmental impact statement, they were told nope, you can't have it. Officials cited public safety concerns as reason to deny the request: "The referenced document contains information related to sensitive infrastructure that if misused could endanger peoples' lives and property."
Funny thing is, the Army Corps had already published the same document on its website a year earlier. What changed in that year? Politics. The Standing Rock Sioux, other tribal leaders, and "Water Protector" allies had since staged a multi-month peaceful protest and sit-in to halt construction of the pipeline.
The need for public scrutiny of the document became clear in June when a U.S. federal judge found that the environmental impact statement omitted key considerations, such as the impact of an oil spill on the Standing Rock Sioux's hunting and fishing rights as well as the impact on environmental justice.
The Business Protection Agency Award - The Food and Drug Administration
The FDA's mission is to protect the public from harmful pharmaceuticals, but they've recently fallen into the habit of protecting powerful drug companies rather than informing people about potential drug risks.
This past year, Charles Seife at Scientific American requested documents about the drug approval process for a controversial drug to treat Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). The agency cited business exemptions and obscured listed side effects as well as testing methodology for the drug, despite claims that the drug company manipulated results during product trials and pressured the FDA to push an ineffective drug onto the market. The agency even redacted portions of a Bloomberg Businessweek article about the drug because the story provided names and pictures of teenagers living with DMD.
The Exhausted Mailman Award - Bureau of Indian Affairs
Requesting information that has already been made public should be quick and fairly simple - but not when you're dealing with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A nomination sent into EFF requested all logs of previously released FOIA information by the BIA. The requester even stated that he'd prefer links to the information, which agencies typically provide for records they have already put on their website. Instead, BIA printed 1,390 pages of those logs, stuffed them into 10 separate envelopes, and sent them via registered mail for a grand total cost to taxpayers of $179.
Crime & Punishment Award - Martin County Commissioners (Florida)
Generally, The Foilies skew cynical, because in many states, open records laws are toothless and treated as recommendations rather than mandates. One major exception to the rule is Florida, where violations of its "Sunshine Law" can result in criminal prosecution.
That brings us to Martin County Commissioners Ed Fielding and Sarah Heard and former Commissioner Anne Scott, each of whom were booked into jail in November on multiple charges related to violations of the state's public records law. As Jose Lambiet of GossipExtra and the Miami Herald reported, the case emerges from a dispute between the county and a mining company that already resulted in taxpayers footing a $500,000 settlement in a public records lawsuit. Among the allegations, the officials were accused of destroying, delaying, and altering records.
The cases are set to go to trial in December 2018, Lambiet told EFF. Of course, people are innocent until proven guilty, but that doesn't make public officials immune to The Foilies.
The Square Footage Award - Jacksonville Sheriff's Office (Florida)
When a government mistake results in a death, it's important for the community to get all the facts. In the case of 63-year-old Blane Land, who was fatally hit by a Jacksonville Sheriff patrol car, those facts include dozens of internal investigations against the officer behind the wheel. The officer, Tim James, has since been arrested on allegations that he beat a handcuffed youth, raising the question of why he was still on duty after the vehicular fatality.
Land's family hired an attorney, and the attorney filed a request for records. Rather than having a complete airing of the cop's alleged misdeeds, the sheriff came back with a demand for $314,687.91 to produce the records, almost all of which was for processing and searching by the internal affairs division. Amid public outcry over the prohibitive fee, the sheriff took to social media to complain about how much work it would take to go through all the records in the 1,600-foot cubic storage room filled with old-school filing cabinets.
The family is not responsible for the sheriff's filing system or feng shui, nor is it the family's fault that the sheriff kept an officer on the force as the complaints - and the accompanying disciplinary records - stacked up.
These Aren't the Records You're Looking For Award - San Diego City Councilmember Chris Cate
Shortly after last year's San Diego Comic-Con and shortly before the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the city of San Diego held a ceremony to name a street after former resident and actor Mark Hamill. A private citizen (whose day job involves writing The Foilies) wanted to know: How does a Hollywood star get his own roadway?
The city produced hundreds of pages related to his request that showed how an effort to change the name of Chargers Boulevard after the football team abandoned the city led to the creation of Mark Hamill Drive. The document set even included Twitter direct messages between City Councilmember Chris Cate and the actor. However, Cate used an ineffective black marker to redact, accidentally releasing Hamill's cellphone number and other personal contact details.
As tempting as it was to put Luke Skywalker (and the voice of the Joker) on speed dial, the requester did not want to be responsible for doxxing one of the world's most beloved actors. He alerted Cate's office of the error, which then re-uploaded properly redacted documents.
The Foilies were compiled by Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Investigative Researcher Dave Maass, Staff Attorney Aaron Mackey, and Frank Stanton Fellow Camille Fischer. Illustrations by EFF Art Director Hugh D'Andrade. For more on our work visit eff.org.