AP investigative reporter offers tips for seeking public records

The Associated Press is committed to fighting for access to information the public has a right to know. AP journalists across the country routinely file Freedom of Information Act requests to uncover critical information that the government would have preferred to keep secret. Washington investigative reporter Jack Gillum recently broke the story that Hillary Clinton used a private email server at her home, and he mined information on Instagram to track Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock’s spending. Gillum frequently draws from records requests to report exclusives. Here, he explains why they should be part of every journalist’s toolkit:

Investigative reporter Jack Gillum (AP photo).

Investigative reporter Jack Gillum (AP photo).

How important to your work are the Freedom of Information Act and open records statutes in the states?
Public records requests have been invaluable in my reporting. FOIA requests to U.S. agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration recently uncovered that the government knew local police in Ferguson, Missouri, put in place flight restrictions to keep the news media away during demonstrations following the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Other requests can illuminate how government officials conduct their affairs, such as when we found senior U.S. officials using alternative email accounts – raising questions about their obligations to turn over documents to lawmakers and the public.

My request for 911 tapes made during the Newtown, Connecticut, shootings — the subject of a lengthy legal fight — revealed how public safety officials responded to one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history. The records didn’t come easy, with one state prosecutor opposing their release and telling a judge that neither I nor the AP represented the public. The judge ultimately sided with the AP.

How often do you file FOIA requests?
I usually file at least one request a week. That doesn’t include the countless records requests other AP journalists file with governments in the United States and around the world.

What challenges do you encounter in the process?
The federal FOIA is chock full of delays, leaving journalists to wait for information long after the news value of those documents has passed. The U.S. State Department, the defendant in a new FOIA lawsuit by the AP seeking documents about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has an average wait time of nearly a year and a half for certain requests.

Public records laws can vary from state to state. Some laws are antiquated and don’t properly address electronic records, leading to excessive charges (25 cents per page) just to view a public official’s emails or her schedules. Other agencies — state, federal or municipal — simply can’t or won’t perform adequate searches, especially with regard to databases and other forms of digital communications.

What advice do you have for other journalists who are learning to navigate the system?
Even if you’re not a lawyer, become an expert on your state’s freedom-of-information laws. Be prepared to fight any denial; don’t “file and forget” the request. And file requests often — not just when you need information on a big, breaking story. After all, governments produce a lot of material that could be newsworthy and important for the public to see.

Become familiar with electronic records and how they’re stored, especially since documents in manila folders are becoming less commonplace. Ask for database “record layouts” – a virtual map of a database that can reveal what information is being kept – and request other forms of electronic communication besides email (like text messages, chat transcripts or Twitter direct messages).

A search of records reveals questionable ties of police chiefs

In this memo to staff, Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano explains how a statehouse reporter’s aggressive pursuit of public documents uncovered a story that had immediate impact in cities across the country:

Iowa City-based Ryan Foley, a member of the State Government Team, was working with Minnesota Statehouse reporter Brian Bakst on a story about the high cost of police body cameras and video storage fees when he spotted the outlines of an accountability thread.

In this Feb. 19, 2015 file photo, Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Taser International, demonstrates one of the company's body cameras for The Associated Press during a company-sponsored conference hosted by Taser at the California Highway Patrol Headquarters in Sacramento, Calif. Officials in Salt Lake City and Fort Worth, Texas, said they are reviewing their ethics policies after The Associated Press reported on how their police chiefs were closely linked to the company that won contracts to supply officers with body cameras. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In this Feb. 19, 2015, file photo, Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Taser International, demonstrates one of the company’s body cameras for The Associated Press during a company-sponsored conference hosted by Taser at the California Highway Patrol Headquarters in Sacramento, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Taser, one of the biggest players in the fast-growing body camera market, had questionable financial ties to the police chiefs who held sway over their cities’ decision on whether to spend significant taxpayer dollars on such gear. Foley flagged it to the attention of his editors and outlined an initial coverage plan, then was given time to dig.

Through aggressive use of public records and persistence in following up, Foley broke the story that Taser, the stun-gun maker, was indeed forging financial ties with police chiefs as a way to win lucrative city contracts in the body camera market. Here’s how it works: Taser covers the expenses for police chiefs to pitch its products at company events across the country and has hired recently retired chiefs as consultants just months after they pushed for approval of Taser contracts.

Foley’s story quickly prompted officials in Fort Worth, Texas, and Salt Lake City to launch reviews of their ethics policies: “What you’re seeing is the Fourth Estate in action,” Salt Lake City spokesman Art Raymond told Foley for his follow-up story. Tom Cowan, chairman of the ethics committee for the Texas police chiefs association, told Foley that his story had prompted the group to examine the former Fort Worth chief’s actions as a likely violation of its ethics code: “It’s caused a lot of entities to rethink this,” he said.

Foley read company literature and financial documents to identify individuals, filed records requests in the cities where they served and pursued comments from his main subjects over several weeks. In Fort Worth, city officials resisted efforts to release some documents and even appealed to the Texas Attorney General’s office, an effort that remains ongoing. Foley did get some of what he requested and turned that into a sidebar that exposed an incriminating email exchange between the city’s former police chief and a Taser sales rep: “I have the votes,” the chief triumphantly declared after persuading the city to approve a rushed $2.7 million contract to help Taser meet a quarterly sales goal. The chief retired shortly afterward and is now in negotiations to get a consulting job with Taser that will take him to Australia and other overseas destinations to promote the company’s products.

Foley also revealed that the current Salt Lake City police chief, who had done extensive promotional work for Taser, had bypassed the normal city budgeting rules to buy 295 Taser body cameras without the City Council’s knowledge. Emphasizing the significance of the beat, a reporter for a Salt Lake City TV station emailed Ryan a congratulatory note after his story ran, saying, “I had heard rumors about this unhealthy relationship more than a year ago but couldn’t pin anything down; glad you busted this out.”

In addition to prompting immediate action in several cities, Foley’s story landed in the top 10 on AP Mobile on a heavy news day. It also made the front pages of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Salt Lake Tribune.

For spotting an important thread and aggressively pursuing public records for a story with immediate real-world impact, Foley wins this week’s $300 Best of the States award.

When news breaks, ‘everyone is a reporter’ at AP

In a memo to AP staff, Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano explains how quick-thinking and collaboration across states and formats led to definitive coverage of a tragic story that captured national attention:

Minutes after a rush-hour commuter train slammed into an SUV on the tracks north of New York City, killing six, two AP staffers more than 1,000 miles apart went immediately to work.

In the New York suburbs, breaking news staffer Kiley Armstrong was at home reading her Facebook feed when a message appeared about the collision on the busy Metro North line. Without hesitating, she grabbed her coat, her notebook and her camera, and headed out the door.

It wasn’t until she reached the snowy crash site two miles away that she called the New York City desk to say she was there, and began dictating the first details of smoke pouring from the train and rescuers trying to get survivors to safety.

Armstrong was the first AP staffer on the scene, and the only one of our text reporters to get anywhere near the site. Her reporting and photography (two of her photos made the wire) helped AP get out front on a story everyone in the nation’s biggest media market was covering.

Firefighters work at the scene of an accident in Valhalla, N.Y., Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. A packed commuter train slammed into a sport utility vehicle on the tracks and the front of the train and the vehicle burst into flames, authorities said. (AP Photo/Kiley Armstrong)

Firefighters work at the scene of an accident in Valhalla, N.Y., Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. A packed commuter train slammed into a sport utility vehicle on the tracks and the front of the train and the vehicle burst into flames, authorities said. (AP Photo/Kiley Armstrong)

Meanwhile, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. investigative team reporter Michael Kunzelman was at home reading his iPad when an alert moved about the New York crash. He immediately began scouring documents he received months before as part of a Freedom of Information request _ on railroad crossings that had received federal money for safety improvements.

He found this listing next to the New York crossing: “Commerce Street Crossing of Metro North Railroad for a crossing upgrade.” There was an amount of money allocated, $126,000 and a status code: “Active.” He quickly contacted his New York-based investigative team colleague, David Caruso, and together they started tracking down the details.

Armstrong, Kunzelman and Caruso demonstrated the essence of what it means to work for the AP in a breaking news situation: No matter your job title or your schedule, EVERYONE is a reporter, and speed is of the essence.

Armstrong’s dash to the scene captured the color and details that populated our breaking updates through the night. She would eventually be joined by at least four more AP staffers across formats, and two more making calls in the bureau.

Kunzelman and Caruso, meanwhile, found that the railroad crossing had undergone a number of upgrades in recent years to reduce the risk of accidents, including the installation of brighter LED lights and new traffic signal control equipment.

But the “active” item from the documents, a 2009 plan to install a third set of flashing lights 100 to 200 feet up the road to give motorists a few seconds’ extra warning, was never carried out. The $126,000 budgeted for the lights and other work was never spent. New York transportation officials were unable to explain why, though they cautioned it was too soon to say whether it would have made any difference in preventing the collision.

The APNewsBreak moved on Friday shortly before public officials held a news conference at the crossing where the crash occurred.

“I just saw that report, the AP report, that they said there should have been more work done, in 2009,” said Democratic U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York. “That’s something that we have to find out the answer to right away. Why wasn’t the work done? Would it have made a difference? Could it have made this preventable? It’s a looming question.”

For fast work and hustle that made AP stand out on one of the biggest national stories of the week, Armstrong, Kunzelman and Caruso share this week’s $300 Best of the States Prize.

Editorials criticize FBI’s impersonation

The FBI’s recent admission that it fabricated an Associated Press story and impersonated an AP reporter during an investigation of bomb threats in the Seattle area continues to generate criticism of the agency’s actions.

USAT1“Catching potential bombers obviously is a good thing, but there are ways to do it without making news operations look like government shills,” USA Today said in an editorial today. “When journalists contact potential sources — whether by phone, e-mail or in person — they need people to trust that they are in fact reporters, not undercover cops.”

WashingtonPost“What was wrong about the Seattle operation was the potential damage to the credibility of the Associated Press by the creation of a false news account by the government and by the impersonation of a reporter,” a Washington Post editorial argued. “The technique threatens to undermine all reporters — not just those from the AP — who seek information from sources and represent themselves truthfully as independent journalists.”

Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer wrote: “Whenever police officers masquerade as journalists, they introduce doubt into the public’s mind about whether the next person purporting to be a journalist is actually a police officer or the stories in the news are really bait set by police.”

In Pennsylvania, The Scranton Times-Tribune Editorial Board said this: “Democracy works only with an independent press that is not controlled by the government. The nation’s Founding Fathers knew that. That’s why, right there in the First Amendment, it says that Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, of the press.

“It doesn’t include a specific prohibition against government agencies impersonating reporters. Perhaps the founders believed that their successors would have the good sense not to jeopardize the independence of the press.

“Recently, however, the FBI has decided to impersonate the press, thus diminishing the press’ separation from the government.”

In an opposing view published by USA Today, former FBI Assistant Director Ronald T. Hosko, now president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, said the FBI “takes seriously its use of sensitive operations,” adding that in the Seattle investigation “no law was broken, no policy was avoided, nothing was traded away with an ‘ends justify the means’ calculus.”

Meanwhile, AP is awaiting a reply to President and CEO Gary Pruitt’s Nov. 10 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey in which he asked who authorized the investigative tactics in 2007 and sought “assurances that this won’t happen again.”

Editorials also have appeared in The New York Times, The Denver Post, The Seattle Times, The Arizona Republic, The Spokesman-Review (in Spokane, Washington), The Repository (in Canton, Ohio) and other newspapers.

AP CEO demands answers from DOJ and FBI

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of The Associated Press, delivers the keynote address at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce annual meeting luncheon in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. Pruitt spoke on the subject of "Free Press vs. National Security: The False Choice." (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of The Associated Press, delivers the keynote address at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce annual meeting luncheon in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Protesting the FBI’s impersonation of an Associated Press reporter, AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt today demanded answers from Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey.

In a letter addressed to both men, Pruitt likened the FBI’s impersonation during a 2007 investigation to identity theft and said the move seriously threatens the organization’s ability to gather news.

“In stealing our identity, the FBI tarnishes [AP’s] reputation, belittles the value of the free press rights enshrined in our Constitution and endangers AP journalists and other newsgatherers around the world,” Pruitt wrote. “This deception corrodes the most fundamental tenet of a free press – our independence from government control and corollary responsibility to hold government accountable.”

Pruitt added that the 2007 violation is another case of government overreach, as was the Justice Department’s secret seizure of AP phone records, which came to light last year.

Read the AP news story.

8 ways the Obama administration is blocking information

The fight for access to public information has never been harder, Associated Press Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee said recently at a joint meeting of the American Society of News Editors, the Associated Press Media Editors and the Associated Press Photo Managers. The problem extends across the entire federal government and is now trickling down to state and local governments.

AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee (AP Photo).

AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee (AP Photo).

Here is Buzbee’s list of eight ways the Obama administration is making it hard for journalists to find information and cover the news:

1) As the United States ramps up its fight against Islamic militants, the public can’t see any of it. News organizations can’t shoot photos or video of bombers as they take off — there are no embeds. In fact, the administration won’t even say what country the S. bombers fly from.

2) The White House once fought to get cameramen, photographers and reporters into meetings the president had with foreign leaders overseas. That access has become much rarer. Think about the message that sends other nations about how the world’s leading democracy deals with the media:  Keep them out and let them use handout photos.

3) Guantanamo: The big important 9/11 trial is finally coming up. But we aren’t allowed to see most court filings in real time — even of nonclassified material. So at hearings, we can’t follow what’s happening. We don’t know what prosecutors are asking for, or what defense attorneys are arguing.

4) Information about Guantanamo that was routinely released under President George W. Bush is now kept secret. The military won’t release the number of prisoners on hunger strike or the number of assaults on guards. Photo and video coverage is virtually nonexistent.

5) Day-to-day intimidation of sources is chilling. AP’s transportation reporter’s sources say that if they are caught talking to her, they will be fired. Even if they just give her facts, about safety, for example. Government press officials say their orders are to squelch anything controversial or that makes the administration look bad.

6) One of the media — and public’s — most important legal tools, the Freedom of Information Act, is under siege. Requests for information under FOIA have become slow and expensive. Many federal agencies simply don’t respond at all in a timely manner, forcing news organizations to sue each time to force action.

7) The administration uses FOIAs as a tip service to uncover what news organizations are pursuing. Requests are now routinely forwarded to political appointees. At the agency that oversees the new health care law, for example, political appointees now handle the FOIA requests.

8) The administration is trying to control the information that state and local officials can give out. The FBI has directed local police not to disclose details about surveillance technology the police departments use to sweep up cellphone data. In some cases, federal officials have formally intervened in state open records cases, arguing for secrecy.

Uninspected wells: Finding local dangers in a sea of federal data

A team of Associated Press journalists across the states worked together to break an exclusive national story and help member news organizations leverage data to produce unique, local reports tied to AP’s findings. In this memo to staff, AP Vice President and Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano explains:

In this June 9, 2014 photo, a petroleum industry worker stands on an oil and gas rig on a well pad, in New Castle, a small farming and ranching settlement on the Western Slope of the Rockies, in Colo. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

In this June 9, 2014 photo, a petroleum industry worker stands on an oil and gas rig on a well pad, in New Castle, a small farming and ranching settlement on the Western Slope of the Rockies, in Colo. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

The report from the Government Accountability Office was intriguing: The government had failed to inspect thousands of oil and gas wells on federal and Indian lands classified as potentially high risk for water contamination and other environmental damage.

But the details were missing. Where were these wells? And did the lack of inspections contribute to any environmental damage?

The Bureau of Land Management was reluctant to provide details, but Washington-based reporter Hope Yen, who broke the story on the GAO report, pressed the agency over the course of several weeks, citing the public’s right to know.

The GAO’s findings came as the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been increasing around the country. While fracking has produced major economic benefits, it also has raised fears among environmentalists that chemicals used in the process could spread to water supplies.

When BLM finally released the data to AP, it was in the form of nearly a dozen spreadsheets. Phoenix-based Interactive Editor Dan Kempton, a member of the data journalism team, consolidated them into two master files, allowing calculations to determine which wells on federal and tribal lands were considered higher risk for water contamination and other environmental problems, and whether or not they were inspected by BLM within the given time period, 2009-2012.

Kempton identified, and BLM later confirmed, that its data had duplicate entries and other inconsistencies. Kempton consolidated the duplicates and merged the missing entries to create the most complete and accurate list available of well inspection data. The consolidated spreadsheets were then distributed in advance to AP bureaus and members in states with drilling operations on public and Indian lands, so they could start working on localized stories to accompany Yen’s national overview.

But the data alone was dry. Absent was the human impact. What was the reaction of people living near these uninspected wells?  With Colorado among the top states with uninspected wells, Denver reporter Thomas Peipert and photographer Brennan Linsely literally knocked on door after door to gather reaction and get photos to illustrate the story.

The story was used on the front pages of more than a dozen newspapers from Denver to Akron, Ohio, to Williamsport, Pa., and Tuscaloosa, Ala. It was featured as a Yahoo showcase, and in the 24-hour period following its release, it was tweeted out nearly 600 times. It was also one on the most widely viewed stories on AP Mobile. About a dozen AP bureaus produced state separates, and many members did their own stories using data provided by AP (The Salt Lake Tribune, Times Leader).

It was yet another example of how data journalism offers AP an opportunity to work with its members to provide the tools for local, granular coverage of national issues.

For their enterprising and exclusive journalism, and for furthering AP’s efforts to help members localize our coverage, Yen, Kempton, Peipert and Linsely win this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

Taking measure of limited media access

In a note to staff, AP Vice President and Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano lauds New York City Hall reporter Jonathan Lemire for strengthening AP’s fight for access to public information:

AP New York City Hall reporter Jonathan Lemire discusses limited media access to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on WNBC's "The Debrief with David Ushery."

AP New York City Hall reporter Jonathan Lemire discusses limited media access to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on WNBC’s “The Debrief with David Ushery.”

On the campaign trail, Bill de Blasio promised to have the most transparent mayoral administration in New York City history. The cracks in that promise literally began forming on the day he took office, when his staff announced that the official midnight swearing-in would be “closed press.”

After hours of protests led by the AP, that restriction was eventually lifted. But the episode tipped [Lemire] that de Blasio may not be as media-friendly as he’d claimed. So Lemire began watching.

For months, he collected de Blasio’s official schedule, taking note each time his official events and meetings were either closed to the press or designated as pool only, with just one print reporter, photographer and video journalist allowed.

As the months wore on, Lemire noticed the frequency of de Blasio’s media restrictions was actually increasing. Several news organizations in New York also noticed and wrote op-eds. The time seemed ripe, at nearly five months into the new administration, for Lemire to tally up the de Blasio schedules he’d collected.

Here’s what he found: 260 total events, 53 of which were completely closed, amounting to 20 percent of de Blasio’s entire schedule. Add in the 30 more events that were pool only, and more than 30 percent of the mayor’s events were either closed or restricted to the media.

A mayor’s spokesman told Lemire that any restrictions on media access were due to logistics, not secrecy. But Lemire didn’t think it would be fair to run the story without de Blasio’s comment. When Lemire told him what the AP had found, de Blasio initially said transparency is often “in the eye of the beholder.” But he eventually acknowledged that “there is a whole swatch of information that needs to be available to the public and we need to continue to do a better job on that.”

His story was widely used in New York, with TV attributing to AP in their own reports, and several local reporters hammering de Blasio on the subject for days. [Time Warner Cable News] NY1’s Bob Hardt opined: “The mayor might want to realize that openness isn’t just good policy, it’s good politics.” And the [New York Post] said “if progressives are really acting — as they claim — on behalf of the people, why are they so keen on keeping a free press from seeing what they’re up to?” Capital New York interviewed Lemire on how he got the story. [Lemire also discussed his reporting on WNBC’s “The Debrief with David Ushery.”]

There was even some evidence that de Blasio was softening his stand two days after the story ran, adding “photo spray” access to a closed event, which had not been normal procedure before.

De Blasio’s tactics echo those of the Obama White House, which has routinely restricted access to the media and then released a photo from an “official photographer,” meaning an official image of the event is the only one that exists. AP and other news organizations have labeled these “visual news releases” and refused to distribute such handouts from the White House, and we are taking the same approach with City Hall.

Lemire’s disciplined beat reporting produced a nice accountability scoop and furthered AP’s leading role in fighting for media access in all the territories where we operate. For that, he wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

AP top editor urges journalists to renew fight for access

AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll addresses a gathering of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Monday, May 19, in New York. (Photo by ©PATRICKMCMULLAN.COM)

AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll addresses a gathering of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Monday, May 19, in New York. (Photo by ©PATRICKMCMULLAN.COM)

Kathleen Carroll, senior vice president and executive editor of The Associated Press, called on fellow journalists to remain vigilant in pressing government and institutions for access to public information during an address to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on Monday in New York.

The event honored top journalists and executives from The New York Times, The Miami Herald, WETA and BakerHostetler for their efforts to defend the First Amendment and the public’s right to know.

“The fights we wage here are administrative parlor games compared to what happens in the many countries where officials intimidate, jail, torture and murder journalists without fear of consequence,” Carroll said. “Those brave colleagues — and they are your colleagues — are fighting for even a sliver of the freedoms that journalists in the United States were handed at the nation’s birth. We have no right to squander those freedoms.”

Carroll urged fellow journalists to deepen their commitment to the fight for access and laid out  practical steps for newsrooms:

  • Make sure that everyone in your newsroom understands the open meetings and records laws in place for all the entities they cover and, more important, they are using them robustly every single day. Don’t segregate that knowledge to “the FOIA person.” Make it a core skill for every editor talking with field journalists.
  • Set aside competitive issues when there’s a fight for access. We can and do succeed when we join the fight together. And don’t lose sight of the real goal, which is open access, not whose turn it is to run the media coalition meeting.
  • And, if you have connections to journalism schools insist that the students know their rights and — this is really important — that they have spent extensive time actually exercising those rights. A semester with a hardback media law book isn’t nearly enough.

Read the full text of Carroll’s remarks.

Executive editor on why AP sought Newtown 911 tapes

The Associated Press sought the 911 calls made during the Dec. 14, 2012, shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, killed 20 children and six educators. On Wednesday, the calls were posted on the town’s website after AP prevailed in a monthslong legal effort to obtain them.

Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explained why the AP wanted to review the tapes as follows:

“We all understand why some people have strong feelings about the release of these tapes. This was a horrible crime. It’s important to remember, though, that 911 tapes, like other police documents, are public records. Reviewing them is a part of normal newsgathering in a responsible news organization.”

“Everyone knows what happened on that awful day. What we still don’t understand is why it happened. Perhaps we never will. But it’s our job to ask questions and gather facts for stories that seek to understand why.”

Carroll also discussed why AP pursued a legal challenge on the BBC World Service.

Read the AP news story.