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Criminal fine proposed for FOI violations

(Published October 23, 2000)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

City employees who wrongfully deny citizens or journalists access to public records could become criminally liable under a proposed amendment to the city’s Freedom of Information Act.

A D.C. City Council committee heard testimony Oct. 12 from journalists and private citizens that painted a picture of city agencies that routinely deny them access to records that are supposed to be readily available to the public.

Representatives from four D.C. newspapers, including The Common Denominator, testified before the council’s Committee on Government Operations about requests for public information that were delayed, ignored or denied in violation of the provisions of the FOI law.

Councilwoman Kathleen Patterson, D-Ward 3, even presented her own evidence of how public information is arbitrarily withheld by government officials. She sent staffers to various city agencies to request documents that should be readily available for inspection by any private citizen on request. Her spot check found that while a few city agencies like the Department of Public Works and the fire department provided access to public documents on request, other agencies — the police department, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Alcohol Beverage Control Board and the Board of Nursing Home Administrators — denied her staffers access to documents that should be available for inspection by law.

"In too many cases government workers do not know that the public has a right to public documents," Patterson said. Her own conclusions were echoed by private citizens and journalists who testified at the hearing.

The hearing was called to take testimony about an amendment Patterson is proposing that would make public records available in electronic form and to extend the law to cover private companies that do government work. But it quickly turned into a litany about the failings of the government to obey its own public records laws.

"It does no good to write a good law if you have no one to enforce it," said Dorothy Brizill, executive director of D.C. Watch, a government watchdog organization.

Kathryn M. Sinzinger, editor and publisher of The Common Denominator, testified that the District is the only jurisdiction where she has ever had problems getting access to public records.

"While FOI laws are used in other parts of the United States as a citizen’s ‘last resort’ when government refuses access to public information, the D.C. government often uses FOIA as an excuse to delay or otherwise impede the free flow of what should be readily available public information," she said.

Sinzinger also challenged Patterson’s committee to beef up the city’s flaccid open meetings law. As it is written and practiced, government bodies are required to hold a public meeting only when a vote is recorded, thus allowing discussions and negotiations to take place behind closed doors.

A provision in Patterson’s amendment would impose a $100 criminal fine against city government workers who deny the public access to public records or fail to produce those records within the time limit prescribed by the law. Abdusalam Omer, the mayor’s chief of staff, objected to the provision, saying it would be unfair for a government employee to pick up a criminal record for something that might be beyond their control.

"This provision may create undue anxiety for employees and may result in a situation where they may choose to err on the side of disclosing confidential areas where FOIA guidelines are less than clear," he said.

Patterson argued that some sort of penalty would be necessary in order to viably extend the law to cover government contractors. Patterson, a former journalist in Kansas City, said concerns over mismanaged government contracts prompted her proposed amendment to the law.

She bemoaned the "lousy job we as a government do to oversee our contracts."

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator