Q&A with a Frequent FOIA Requester

Article excerpt

July 4th marked the 40th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act. Several reports from various sources in Washington observed the occasion by analyzing the effects of recent FOIA directives, reguladons and law. But how is FOIA working away from Capitol Hill for working journalists outside the Beltway? Russell Carollo, special projects reporter with The Sacramento Bee and Pulitzer Prize winner, is one of the most prolific FOIA users among journalists. In this Q & A, Carollo shares his personal experiences using FOIA as a key component of his reporting. You can read the fruits of Russell's FOIA labors in The Sacramento Bee online at www.sacbee.com.

(A longer version of this Q&A can be found online at www. rtfp.org/foia)

Q: About how many FOIA or public records requests do you make each year? How much of each day do you spend following up on those public records requests?

A: I file between 75 to 150 requests and appeals a year, more some years. I spend at least half my day filing requests, taking phone calls on requests, appealing requests, examining information received from requests or using information received from requests.

Q. Are public records getting progressively easier to obtain or harder?

A: Harder. No doubt.

Q: Why (in your experience and opinion)?

A: Hard to tell if it's the new administration or the new administration's reaction to Sept. 11. Why do I believe this? I have filed several requests for exactly the same information I had requested before Sept. 11, and I have been refused. In a number of requests, there really is no sound reason for denial. It seems the agency is daring me to sue, knowing that the odds that a newspaper will sue are low, especially these days.

There's a new air of arrogance now, too, in the way they deny and how they're denying, with what they must know are grounds that won't hold up in court. Again, they seem to be almost daring us to sue them, knowing that more often than not, we can't afford it.

The problem is that they're right 90 percent of the time. Newspapers don't sue very often.

Q: A recent study by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government (CJOG) found that only about 6 percent of all FOIA requests come from the media. Many reporters say FOIA requests take too long. What are those reporters who choose not use FOIA missing?

A: I have filed FOIA requests for FOIA logs, and I have found exactly the same thing: Very few requests from reporters. On some cases, less than 3 percent.

Yes, it takes, too, long, but the trick is to file a FOIA before you start working on a story or project. When the information comes in, then you begin the rest of your reporting.

Reporters who don't use FOIA are missing what everyone else is not seeing, the information that's not given out at press conferences or in press releases - information the government would rather you not see. …