A 12-step Program for Using Public Disclosure Laws

Eric Nalder
Seattle Times

1. Don't be shy about submitting public disclosure requests, or asking for documents. If you are curious about something, pursue it. Don't assume you can't get it.

2. Let the government agency cite the exemptions. Don't second guess your right to a public document. My belief is that everything should be available to me.

3. Find out how a government agency keeps its records before you request them. Ask questions like: "When someone complains about wrongdoing in your agency how is that complaint recorded, what is the name of the document and where is it kept?"

4. It helps to understand how an agency works before you write your request. For example, good questions include: "Who does your audits, how often are they done and what is covered in the audits? What other kinds of investigations -- besides audits -- does your agency conduct?"

5. Find out ahead of time the name of the person who will respond to your public disclosure or FOIA request. Telephone that person and go over your request with them before you mail it. Be courteous and tell that person that you appreciate their effort to get the information to you quickly. Be as forthcoming as you can be about the nature of the story you are working on (but keep in mind that agencies do try to hide things).

6. The written public disclosure request should be both specific and general at the same time. Ask first for the specific documents and then request "any and all other records that" (mention, pertain to, would discuss) the subject at hand. It is frequently better to ask for the information on computer disc, if the agency stores it that way. Government agencies are more accustomed now to releasing information that way. You can then load the data into a personal computer and analyze it.

7. Organize your request so that each item is listed separately. Write the request letter as clearly as possible. Be sure that you specify the time period you are covering in your request, and that you give the agency a good idea of the type of information you are seeking. Have your editor review the request for errors before you send it.

8. It's often convenient to ask an agency for photocopies of documents. However, if you have the time, getting access to the original files is better. Combing through an agency's file cabinets allows you to discover other things, and at the same time you can chat with the people who keep the documents.

9. If the agency doesn't respond, regularly telephone the person handling your request. Be courteous, but escalate your impatience and firmness as time goes on. If you don't get what you want, don't hesitate to telephone the agency head. I remind government bureaucrats that, as a writer, I often reflect the response time and the general attitude of the respondant in my stories.

10. Don't rely on a written request as the sole method for getting documents. While the public disclosure request or FOIA is winding its way through an agency, see if you can find a friendly mole who will simply obtain the stuff you want for you. Secretaries, clerks and others in lower levels can be helpful here.

11. Documents can lie or mislead you, so don't rely on them as your only source of information.

12. If you don't get what you want, follow up your first letter with a second one, and a third one, etc. A letter from our lawyers can sometimes break the logjam. 

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