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FOIA Love: Public Records Laws Helping Our Community

dcogcadmin | August 10, 2017

Vivid examples in recent days offer a chance to celebrate the local laws protecting access to government records and how they have helped achieve worthwhile goals:

  • D.C. schools excluded students while also concealing the numbers on official tallies probably to meet PR goals of reduced suspensions –- but the practice was uncovered in educators’ emails obtained by a reporter’s FOIA requests and led to the chancellor’s commitment to audit the whole system’s records (Post July 17 story here);
  • D.C. police and prosecutors closed a case about a bar fight where one man died (calling it “self-defense” by the attackers) — but details in police investigation records uncovered by the victim’s parents’ FOIA requests (along with more found in a lawsuit) led to an unusual letter from Peter Newsham, D.C. police chief, to the prosecutor asking the  case be reopened (Mark Seagraves May 12 NBC4 story here and August 4 Post editorial here);
  • Metrorail track safety inspection reports were faked, as the Inspector General found several years ago in a long-buried report – but now uncovered by a reporter’s request under the WMATA version of FOIA (called PARP, Public Access to Records Policy) (August 9 Post story here).

Schools’ discipline practice, justice for crime victims, transit safety — basic concerns in the daily life of our community, but not fully assured without watchdogs and access to records, as these examples show. Hence our headline, “FOIA Love.”

The laws giving a right of access to D.C. and WMATA records are there for the public and press to use. Requests are simple to make through an online portal that reaches most D.C. government agencies (WMATA requests go directly to them; see here) and denials can be quickly appealed. The D.C. Office of Open Government can assist; see their website’s FOIA page here

As a certain hometown newspaper now says on every edition’s front page masthead, “democracy dies in darkness.” These exhibits show what sunlight can do, the result of crucial records found through FOIA requests.