I tell my journalism students the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was the best thing to come along for journalists since the typewriter. For nearly 40 years in my investigative reporting course at SUNY Old Westbury, I teach the history and use of FOIA.
In fact, not just journalists, but anybody can utilize FOIA. It opens a window on what government does — what these days is called “transparency” — and is a treasure for democracy.
“Democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the nation will permit,” said President Lyndon Johnson when he signed FOIA into law on, appropriately, the Fourth of July, 1966.
Congressman John Moss of California is considered the “father” of FOIA. In his 12-year struggle to get the law on the books, he faced enormous resistance from fellow officials.
With its provisions allowing the public to obtain information from the federal government (with nine exemptions), FOIA went into effect in 1967. Most states, including New York, followed it with similar laws. In New York, a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) was enacted in 1974. Because counties, cities, towns, villages and school districts are all created by the state, they are covered by FOIL. To oversee FOIL in New York, there’s a Committee on Open Government. Since 1976 its executive director has been Robert J. Freeman. An attorney, Bob’s always available with advice and opinions when there’s trouble in getting information under FOIL.
And there often is. The passage of a law is often not enough to have it enforced. There are officials and government entities that won’t comply. And with FOIL, this includes a number in Suffolk.
The organization “Reclaim New York” has just brought a lawsuit in Suffolk State Supreme Court against the Southampton School District and Islip and Babylon Towns for refusal to comply with FOIL. Reclaim New York, as its website states, “is a non-partisan organization dedicated to advancing a statewide, grassroots conversation about the future of New York, its economy and its people.” Major focuses are “government reform and accountability.” Based in Manhattan, it has been doing a lot on Long Island, including working its “New York Transparency Project” here.
The organization filed FOIL requests this year and last with every town, village and school district and both counties on Long Island for copies of records of expenditures to vendors for fiscal year 2014. The object is to get the records so residents could see where their tax money had gone. Not exactly a radical request. Most, but not all, of the entities complied.
The Town of Shelter Island promptly complied with the FOIL request, as did the Shelter Island School District and the Village of Dering Harbor.
Towns in Suffolk that denied providing the information under FOIL were Islip and Babylon, according to a summary on Reclaim New York’s website. One Suffolk village, Islandia, refused. As for Suffolk school districts, those which denied giving the information —or ignored repeated FOIL requests — were Bridgehampton, Eastport-South Manor, Quogue, Sayville and Southampton. The Suffolk County Economic Development Corporation ignored, too. More were on the list when Reclaim New York initially published it, but with the subsequent media attention, they then complied. What’s left are “the worst,” says a spokesperson for Reclaim New York.
The Southampton School District has become quite a FOIL violator, which is why it is so deserving of a lawsuit. This April, the Southampton Press sought, under FOIL, the findings of an investigation into serious allegations against Scott Farina before he resigned as superintendent of schools with a $300,000 pay-out. The district said this would be an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” And, yes, there is an exemption under both FOIA and FOIL when personal privacy is involved.
But in this instance, a law firm conducted, with taxpayers in the Southampton School District footing the bill, an investigation into the allegations. Add to that the sum of $300,000 in tax dollars given to Mr. Farina, a public employee, upon his resignation.
Surely, the public’s right to know is preeminent here. Bob Freeman’s Committee on Open Government has offered an opinion that there is no FOIL prohibition against the Southampton School District releasing the information. The Press is pursuing this issue.
Many times, even with FOIA and FOIL, journalists have to fight for information. I not only teach about these tools, but how to use them. A significant FOIA battle came after I learned that a 1986 mission of the Challenger space shuttle had it carrying a plutonium-fueled space probe. Under FOIA, I sought all government information on the consequences if the Challenger underwent an accident and deadly plutonium was spread on that May launch.
The U.S. Department of Energy denied my request, claiming the information was technical and also I would be paid for reporting about it as a journalist, both reasons baloney claims under FOIA. I appealed. It took a year of fighting but I won, and received the grim information just before the Challenger exploded on launch in January. Its next mission was to be the nuclear one — and not just seven brave astronauts but many more people would have died if the disaster happened on it.
I detailed this FOIA fight in my book, “The Wrong Stuff.”