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D.C. Transparency Watch: Appeal Needed for NBC4 to Get D.C. Emails

dcogcadmin | March 22, 2016

Emails went missing the first time D.C. television reporters asked for agency staff communications that could shed light on weak preparations for a sudden snow storm back on January 20. And no one is saying why.

As the “News 4 I-Team” reported last week (16), their first request yielded a total of zero records–none. 

This of course seemed highly unlikely, as D.C. residents had been howling that night about city streets and roads that were untreated sheets of ice. 

On appeal, the central technology office that stores all city emails turned up hundreds of pages of messages involving the mayor’s office, Department of Public Works and more. The office blamed the initial zero harvest on unspecified technical problems (but also admitted other requests were similarly mishandled). 

Wrote the tech office:

“Due to technical issues with our email archive system, (technology office) staff inadvertently provided incomplete search results for FOIA requests for emails dated after December 31, 2015. Once the issue was brought to our attention by NBC and others, (the office) immediately reviewed all FOIA related email searches during this time period and identified several incomplete searches.”

The news team learned, however, that even earlier requests had also yielded zero results and when re-done later turned up many pages of email records, missed the first time just as in the snow case.

The D,.C. Office of Open Government could use this as a case study, to investigate and shed light on problems with Freedom of Information Act requests, where the Coalition has found over the years that problems with agency searches for records are a common focus of appeals and even lawsuits in Superior Court.