A few years ago, a Courant reporter emailed a routine Freedom-of-Information Act request to a certain large central-Connecticut municipality, and the reply that ended up back in her Inbox included – most definitely unintentionally – the entire string of emails that was created as the request bounced around various city departments.
The gem of that email string was a brief question posed by the city’s attorney, who asked one of his deputies: “Helen, take a look at this FOIA request. Any feelings re our capacity to tell [the reporter] to go pound sand?”
We got the records – this attorney was famously ill-informed on FOI matters and “Helen” was kind enough to explain the law to him – and we chalked this up as a one-in-a-million goof. But it turns out it’s not entirely uncommon for public employees to inadvertently reveal their plans to disregard transparency laws.
The latest case involves Washington, D.C., television reporter Scott MacFarlane, who asked the federal government for a variety of records related to last September’s attack at the Washington Navy Yard that left 12 dead. Instead of the records, the FOI officer last week sent him an email – intended for another Navy official – with a surprisingly detailed strategy for minimizing the amount of information the government would have to release to the public.
The email laid out a few scenarios for asserting that it would be impossible to fulfill MacFarlane’s request for photographs and memos, with ideas for turning MacFarlane down altogether or persuading him to narrow the scope of the records he wanted.The FOI officer discounted much of the request as a “fishing expedition,” but regarding a request for emails sent on the day of the shooting, she wrote: “this one is specific enough that we may be able to deny.”
MacFarlane promptly posted an image of the email – along with the Tweet: “EPIC FAILURE- U.S. Navy accidentally sends reporter its strategy memo for dodging his FOIA request.” In addition to 1,800 re-Tweets, that prompted an apology from the Navy, which also took to Twitter to insist the agency is thoroughly committed to transparency and the “vital role” of the Freedom of Information Act – the actions of its Freedom of Information officer notwithstanding.
The Navy episode got reporters on a Freedom of Information list-serv talking about similar email snafus. When a Florida reporter asked the IRS for information related to a problem with direct deposit of tax refunds, a tax official accidentally wrote back: “The reporter also wanted to know how many taxpayers are affected by this situation. I’m trying to avoid answering the question but I’ll bet someone knows the answer.”
A reporter in Washington state once emailed questions to the county sheriff, with a cc to the press officer. The sheriff hit “Reply All” and, thinking she was writing to her aide, simply asked “Who is this jerk?”
Government officials often find it more convenient to operate in secret. But that’s not how things are supposed to work in a Democracy. Have your own FOI horror story? Or having trouble accessing public records that you, after all, own? Let us know. Our contact form is always available.