Investigative Post teams with UB Law clinic

Reporters face growing resistance from state and local government officials when they seek public records.

The state Freedom of Information Law, intended to promote the public’s right to know, is often used by politicians and bureaucrats to delay the release of records. Investigative Post has found that many bureaucracies, including the City of Buffalo and its Board of Education, and especially the State of New York, routinely take much longer to fulfill FOI requests than what’s permitted under law. Other news organizations experience similar delays. In recent years, it’s become an epidemic.

At times, there’s almost an unspoken challenge posed to reporters: If you don’t like it, sue us. Of course, taking legal action usually incurs expenses, sometimes prohibitive expenses. As a result, reporters often have to suffer through lengthy delays to obtain public records that sometimes could be retrieved in a matter of days with a good-faith effort. 

Determined to challenge the delay tactics, Investigative Post has teamed with the University at Buffalo Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic. The clinic is providing pro bono legal services to Investigative Post to help deal with intransigent officials who fail to comply with the FOI Law. 

The Transparency Clinic will provide Investigative Post the legal muscle necessary to obtain compliance as required under the law. 

“Our goal is to create a culture of transparency and openness in government,” said Michael Higgins, staff attorney and clinical teaching fellow at the clinic.

“The faculty and student attorneys of the clinic are eager to litigate in support of the intrepid reporting of the Investigative Post. This work is critical to leveling the playing field against stonewalling government agencies.”

The clinic is working in collaboration with Finnerty Osterreicher & Abdulla, which represents Investigative Post on libel and other media law matters. Attorney Steven Polowitz handles nonprofit law issues for Investigative Post.

“Access to public records is essential to effective watchdog journalism, democracy’s lifeblood,” said Karim Abdulla, a partner in Finnerty Osterreicher & Abdulla. “All too often public officials delay or deny access without any reasonable basis.  We are confident our partnership with Investigative Post and the Transparency Clinic will be an effective antidote to this problem.”

The clinic has already handled two matters for Investigative Post involving the Board of Education. One involved the district’s failure to provide records within the timeframe proscribed by the FOI Law. The other, still ongoing, involves a demand by the district to pay excessive fees to obtain public records.

Investigative Post is a nonprofit investigative reporting center based in Buffalo. Its distribution partners include WGRZ-TV, WBFO and WBEN radio, The Capitol Pressroom, and Buffalo Spree.