May 4, 2016

When I’m having trouble getting public records from a government agency, I’ll often turn to my colleagues for advice or just to vent. But sometimes, you need to take your struggle public.

That’s what New York City reporter Joaquin Sapien did last month. After spending nearly a year trying to get records from the city and exchanging more than 50 emails with a freedom of information officer, he finally had enough.

On April 21, he posted a story on ProPublica with a headline that captured his frustration: “Foiled by FOIL: How One City Agency Has Dragged Out a Request for Public Records for Nearly a Year.”

Sapien allowed readers to experience his frustration by including screenshots of emails he exchanged with the freedom of information officer, showing that she promised to deliver the records eight different times. Each time the promised delivery date rolled around, she had a new excuse and a new date that the records would be ready.

On April 19 — 10 months after his initial request — Sapien wrote to the agency’s spokeswoman to tell her that he planned to write a story about his problem getting the records. One day after his story posted, Sapien received a package of documents in the mail from the agency.

I asked Sapien to tell me why he decided to write a story and what advice he has for other reporters who are struggling to get records.

Reporters often fight public records battles behind the scenes. Why did you decide to write about your difficulty getting these records?

The absurdity of it was really beginning to bother me. As I pointed out, the effort to get these records began in June of last year. By April, Public Records Officer Janet Stateman and I had exchanged more than 50 emails regarding the request. And she was using the same language over and over again to explain the delays: First she was still gathering the records; then she was redacting them, then “double checking the redactions.”

I told her that I’d obtained similar records, in larger volumes from other agencies in different states, with relative ease. That didn’t seem to matter. What rankled me most, though, were the empty promises. She kept saying the documents would be delivered on a certain date, then that date would pass and she’d say they’d be ready on another date. It felt like it was going to go on forever if we didn’t call the agency out.

How did people react to your story?

I got a nice response. I heard from a bunch of reporters — from friends and people I’ve never met — thanking me for doing this. I definitely got a sense that many people shared my frustration. Usually we reporters just grumble about this stuff in the newsroom and move on. People were glad to see a more public airing.

But the best part was the response from the Administration for Children’s Services itself. The agency put a batch of records in the mail about 30 minutes before the story ran. They were on my desk the next morning.

Of course, I still haven’t received everything I asked for, but I’m more confident now they’ll be more responsive.

Your story mentioned that ProPublica occasionally writes about problems getting records. How do you decide which ones to highlight? Do you think those stories make a difference?

I can’t say there is any real formula to it. Every reporter in here has run into similar obstacles. I think in this case we decided to do the story in part because the email thread just got so ridiculous. We also knew we were going to be working with the Administration for Children’s Services on further requests, so it was important to let them know we weren’t going to just idly wait on them.

Also, and this is really the most important thing, the information I requested is important to New Yorkers and people all over the country. It pertained to public safety and the success of a taxpayer-funded program that is viewed by many as the future of juvenile detention in the U.S. Kids who lived in these experimental group homes had run away and been involved in a rape, a murder and other crimes.

Many kids, no doubt, have also benefited from the Close to Home program. But the public has the right to know what the government is doing to ensure the benefits and mitigate the risks.

How did you remain so calm in your correspondence with the freedom of information officer, even after she kept putting you off month after month?

My main goal was to get these records to the public. Losing my composure probably wasn’t going to help. I was mad, for sure, and showed some impatience a few times, but taking it out on the FOIL officer didn’t seem fair.

I couldn’t afford some petty squabble with a bureaucrat. To me it seemed clear Stateman was just working for a flawed system. It wasn’t all her fault.

Also, I knew at a certain point the emails themselves could form the spine of a fairly revelatory story. I didn’t want to appear angry or rude on them.

What advice do you have for other journalists who are dealing with problems getting public records?

Know the law. Know what you are entitled to and when. Then, be persistent, be specific, and be polite. If that doesn’t work, publish your emails. Why not? It worked for me. As I said earlier, I got records (though not all of them) the day after our story ran.

Who knows, maybe if more reporters externalized their frustration this way, we’d get more information, faster. Yes, there are always concerns about competition, the urge to protect our lines of reporting and so on, but I think the more pressure we can bring collectively on government agencies, the higher our chances of getting information out of them.

These are not trivial matters. When government agencies deny or delay our access to records, they are not just making our professional lives difficult, they are doing a disservice to the citizens who pay their salaries. They are infringing on the public’s right to know, and that’s really what this story is about.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The truth is, this story was fun to write. But I would’ve preferred not to write it. If I had received the records when the law says I should’ve received them, we’d all be better off: I’d have my story, the public would have the information, and the Administration for Children’s Services would’ve been spared this black eye.

Unfortunately, the system does not work the way it’s supposed to. Excessive delays happen more often than not. They are even worse at the federal level. Despite pledges from President Obama to lead “the most transparent administration in history,” reporters routinely wait months, even years, to have federal requests filled.

It’s hard to name an exact cause. Records departments are often overburdened and poorly financed, but I think there is something more cynical at play. Government officials often seem to believe we reporters will go away if ignored. So they stall. They don’t answer tough questions, they tie us up in endless records requests, and they try to wait us out.

I hope, then, that this story contributes to a modest, but firm message that we’re not going anywhere.

Have you done an interesting story using public records or know of a good one by someone else? I’d love to hear about it. Tweet me @RecordsGeek.

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Kelly Hinchcliffe is an investigative reporter at in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is passionate about public records. She previously worked as an education reporter…
Kelly Hinchcliffe

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