This year's most outrageous government transparency fiascos include a Florida school board threatening a newspaper and more 

The Foilies 2019

Page 3 of 4

click to enlarge PHOTO VIA PROPUBLICA REPORTER JESSICA HUSEMAN
  • Photo via ProPublica reporter Jessica Huseman

The Scanner Darkly Award: St. Joseph County Superior Court

ProPublica reporter Jessica Huseman has been digging deep into the child welfare system and what happens when child abuse results in death. While following up on a series of strangulations, she requested a copy of a case file from the St. Joseph County Superior Court in Indiana. Apparently, the clerk on the other end simply took the entire file and ran everything through a scanner. The problem was that the file contained a CD-ROM, and that's not how CD-ROMs work. "Well this is the first time this had happened," Huseman posted to Twitter, along with the blotchy black-and-white image of the top of the disc. "They scanned a CD as part of my FOI and didn't give me its contents. Cool cool."

The Cash for Crash Award: Michigan State Police

As tech companies experiment with autonomous vehicles on public roadways, reporters are keeping tabs on how often these cars are involved in collisions. That's why The Information's Matt Drange has been filing records requests for the crash data held by state agencies. Some government departments have started claiming that every line of the dataset is its own, individual record and subject to a copy fee. Our winner, the Michigan State Police, proposed to charge Drange a 25-cent fee for each of a 1.9 million-line dataset, plus $20 for a thumbdrive, for a grand total of $485,645.24, with half of it due up front. Runners-up that quoted similar line-by-line charges include the Indiana State Police ($346,000) and the North Carolina Department of Transportation ($82,000). Meanwhile, Florida's government released its detailed dataset at no charge at all.

The Bartering with Extremists Award: California Highway Patrol

In 2016, the Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP), an infamous neo-Nazi group, staged a demonstration at the California State Capitol. Counter-protesters fiercely opposed the demonstration, and the scene soon descended into chaos, leaving multiple people injured. When the dust settled, a member of the public (disclosure: also a co-author of this piece) filed a California Public Records Act request to obtain a copy of the permit the white nationalist group filed for its rally. The California Highway Patrol rejected the request for this normally available document, claiming it was related to a criminal investigation.

Two years later, evidence emerged during criminal proceedings that a CHP detective used the public records request as a bargaining chip in a phone call with the TWP protest leader, who was initially reluctant to provide information. The officer told him how the request might reveal his name. "We don't have a reason to ... uh ... deny [the request]," the officer said, according to a transcript of the call. But once the organizer decided to cooperate, the officer responded, "I'm gonna suggest that we hold that or redact your name or something ... uh ... until this thing gets resolved." In light of these new facts, the First Amendment Coalition filed a new request for the same document. It too was denied.

The Pre-emptive Shredding Award: Inglewood Police Department

In defiance of the law enforcement lobby, California legislators passed a law (SB 1421) requiring police and sheriffs to disclose officer misconduct records in response to California Public Records Act requests. These documents, often contained in personnel files, had historically been untouchable by members of the public and the press.

Almost immediately, police unions across the Golden State began to launch lawsuits to undermine these new transparency measures. But the Inglewood Police Department takes the prize for its efforts to evade scrutiny. Mere weeks before the law took effect on Jan. 1, 2019, the agency began destroying records that were set to become publicly available.

"This premise that there was an intent to beat the clock is ridiculous," Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts Jr. told the LA Times in defending the purge. We imagine Butts would find it equally ridiculous to suggest that the fact he had also been a cop for more than 30 years, including serving in Inglewood and later as police chief of Santa Monica, may have factored into his support for the destruction of records.

The What the Swat? Award: Nova Scotia and Halifax Law Enforcement

One Wednesday morning in April, 15 Halifax police officers raided the home of a teenage boy and his family. "They read us our rights and told us not to talk," his mother would later tell CBC. "They rifled through everything. They turned over mattresses, they took drawers and emptied out drawers, they went through personal papers, pictures. It was totally devastating and traumatic."

You might well wonder, what was the Jack Bauer-class threat to geopolitical stability? Nothing at all: The Canadian teen had just downloaded a host of public records from openly available URLs on a government website.

At the heart of the ordeal was some seriously terrible security practices by Nova Scotia officials. The website created to host the province's public records was designed in such a way that every request and response had a nearly identical URL and placed no technical restrictions on the public's ability to access any of the requests. This meant that regular public records requests and individuals' requests to access government files about them, which included private information, were all stored together and available on the internet for anyone, including Google's webcrawler, to access. All that was necessary was changing a number identifying the request at the end of the URL.

What Nova Scotian officials should have done upon learning about leaks in their own public records websites was apologize to the public, thank the teen who found these gaping holes in their digital security practices, and implement proper restrictions to protect people's private information. They didn't do any of that, and instead sought to improperly bring the force of Canada's criminal hacking law down on the very person who brought the problem to light.

The whole episode – which thankfully ended with the government dropping the charges – was a chilling example of how officials will often overreact and blame innocent third parties when trying to cover up for their own failings. This horror show just happened to involve public records. Do better, Canada.

Consider supporting local journalism.
Our small but mighty local team works tirelessly to bring you high-quality, uncensored news and cultural coverage of Central Florida. Unlike many newspapers, ours is free – and we'd like to keep it that way, because we believe, now more than ever, everyone deserves access to accurate, independent coverage of their community.

Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing pledge, your support helps keep Orlando’s true free press free.

Newsletters

Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

Calendar

© 2020 Orlando Weekly

Website powered by Foundation