Government’s spin cycle

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

I’m not sure when the high water mark was regarding the public’s right to know about what’s being done in its name and with its tax dollars, but surely that time has passed.

A lot gets written this time every year as the press “celebrates” Sunshine Week. The focus is often on government’s failure to live up to the spirit, if not the letter of the Freedom of Information Law. But the problem goes well beyond efforts to stonewall the press and public under the FOI Law.

I’ve been a reporter for more than 30 years and over that time I’ve experienced an exponential growth by government to suppress, control and spin information to suit the political purposes of public office holders.

This has been a bi-partisan effort that extends from Washington to Albany to the town halls and school boards throughout the land. That’s not to say everyone is up to no good. But after three decades in the front lines, I can say from first-hand experience there is too much skulduggery going on.

The federal government is notorious for taking its time fulfilling FOI requests. As Jerry Zremski of The Buffalo News noted in his fine piece Sunday, the Navy took a decade to respond to an FOI request from the paper.

Repeat – a decade.

There’s something far worse going on, however. Down right scary, in fact.

The feds have essentially acknowledged that they are using their surveillance powers to identify the confidential sources of reporters under select circumstances.  It started under George W. Bush, if not sooner, and continues under Barack Obama, who as a candidate for president pledged greater protection for whistle blowers but has instead gone after them with a vengeance since taking office.

Most of my experience has been at the state and local level, and while nothing going on in New York rises to the level of what we’re seeing out of Washington, the basic M.O. of control is very much at play.

There have been some steps forward. Campaign contribution and expenditures of local, as well as state candidates, are online, although they could be presented in a more user-friendly format. Likewise, the state Senate has started posting more information, including its payroll.

But the Senate, much like the rest of state government, is on a permanent spin cycle.

I did a series of stories and blog posts on the spending of the Legislature in 2008 and calculated that its press apparatus involved 194 employees and $10.8 million in spending. Most senators had a full-time press secretary, not that most of them do all that much newsworthy, especially in the seven or eight months a year when they’re not in session.

All this “help” wasn’t of much use to me when I tried to obtain public records a few years back on the amount of mail Sen. Antoine Thompson was sending to voters at taxpayer expense. It took me several FOI requests and well over six months – it could have been close to a year – before I obtained the information.

State government under the governor’s control – both departments and authorities – has its own set of issues. They all have press handlers – “public information officers” is a common title – and the good ones help reporters navigate what can be sprawling bureaucracies.

But I’ve learned over time that their first responsibility is to manage their department’s message, in part by keeping reporters from talking to rank-and-file staff. You know, the people who actually know something. But these staff people can’t necessarily be counted on to “stay on message.”

Instead, information requests and questions and answers all flow through the flak, who usually have no first-hand knowledge of which they speak.

Then there is local government.

I continue to be amazed at how many officials charged with running public meetings and handling FOI requests simply don’t know the applicable laws. Elected boards will often go into closed-door executive session citing grounds that misinterpret the law. And the lawyers and bureaucrats charged with handling requests for public records often don’t know the FOI Law.

Just how clueless is officialdom?

Recently, The News reported the difficulty many town councils and school boards were having meeting a new law to post more information online regarding matters before elected officials.

Reported Jay Tokasz:

The new law requires the posting of even more information — essentially, whatever the voting board members have at their disposal during the meetings, as long as it’s not confidential.  Some area boards have been scrambling to meet the requirements, while others acknowledged that they either were unaware of the change in the law or were still trying to understand what the amendment means.

The problem is endemic of the miserable job most, if not all, local governments are doing in using the web to make their operations transparent to constituents. Gov 2.0 is nowhere to be found in Western New York.

Then there is City Hall, where the Brown administration has taken obfuscation to a new low.

Here’s how it works.

Want to talk to the mayor? Good luck, unless you manage to catch him at a photo op.

Talk to staff? Surely, you jest.

Perhaps a department head? Probably not. They know speaking out of turn will incur the wrath of Deputy Mayor Steve Casey, if not Brown himself.  Instead, media inquiries are usually funneled to the mayor’s press secretary.

Ah, finally someone charged to deal with the press. But it can be tough sometimes to get even them to talk, so reporters are forced to ask for public records to fill in the gaps.

But asking for a public records means often getting told to file a FOI request, which can takes days, weeks or months to produce results.

The routine goes something like this. The administration, through its legal department, will wait the full five business days permitted under law to recognize the FOI request in writing. It will then often say it needs at least 20 more working days to determine if the records are available. The 20 days comes and goes and they’ll often send another letter saying they need at least another 20 days. And so it goes.

On occasion, it takes a fair amount of time to locate and produce records. Then again, I’ve waited a month or two to simply obtain a resume of a department head.

The rest of City Hall doesn’t work this way. Let me give you a current example.

I filed a FOI request about a month ago seeking documents related to recycling. The City Clerk’s office, controlled by the Common Council, got back to me in less than two weeks to say they searched their files and didn’t have the records. Meanwhile, I’m still waiting to hear back from the Corporation Counsel regarding records kept by the Public Works Department, both of which are under the control of the administration. Their initial five days has long passed, and most of their 20 have elapsed, as well. I’m expecting a letter any day now saying “We need more time.”

While I can’t agree with the tactic, I can kind of understand when it’s me or another  investigative reporter with a history of uncovering wrongdoing. But the Brown administration routinely does this to other reporters. Aaron Besecker succeeded Brian Meyer as The News’ City Hall reporter last fall and I can’t help but notice the number of times he’s reported the Brown administration didn’t respond to questions or requests for information.

Any kind of public relations pro would advise a client such as Byron Brown to not dump on a new reporter on the beat. But to Brown and Company, it’s shoot now and dodge questions later. It’s a way of doing business, regardless of the letter or spirit of applicable laws.

But, again, City Hall is far from the only culprit. I recently filed an information request with the Unified Court System seeking a database of Buffalo Housing Court cases. The records were provided twice before. This time, I’m getting resistance.

But that was then, and this is now, when the public’s right to know, in the courts and elsewhere, is falling victim to the culture of spin, control and suppression.