A Reflection on the FIOA Project

I started this FOIA experiment almost 11 weeks ago and have been walking you through every important point in the journey since. I have been documenting the process from the moment I first filed my requests until two weeks ago when I finally received some of the documents I was hoping for, which I showed you in my previous post. While the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of Texas still has two days to respond to my FOIA request, I thought I would go ahead and reflect back on this entire process and what it has taught me about being a journalist.

The first lesson I learned is that FOIA requests take a long time. From the moment I filed the requests until I finally got the documents, the process took between eight and nine weeks for the Fort Worth Department of Planning and Development and still has not been concluded for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Therefore, as a journalist, it is important to give these requests ample time to reach their desired result. If you need data for a story and can only receive it through a FOIA request, then it is vital that you make that filing weeks and months in advance in order to allow time for any complications or back and forth communication with the agency about the requested documents.

The second lesson I learned was that these FOIA requests need to be incredibly specific. The complications and set backs I had in this process were all due to lack of specificity and a need for more clarification. These mishaps set my receiving of the documents I requested back several weeks, which could be too late if I had a story on deadline. Therefore, I learned how important it is to be clear, concise and specific in FOIA requests in order to better your chances of receiving the desired information in a timely manner.

Lastly, I learned that no matter the time and effort it takes to make a FOIA request, it is worth it. Receiving the documents and seeing concrete numbers and information that I would not have otherwise known showed me how important and beneficial data can be for an article. As I mentioned in my last post, numbers are the perfect supplementary information to a story to give it both relevance and credibility for the reader. Specific data can also put mere ideas into a concrete form that is easier for readers to picture and understand. Lastly, FOIA requests can give journalists information that people would not readily disclose on their own accord. However, since it is our right as citizens to know, we can find that information and educate ourselves on the issues at hand.

Therefore, this FOIA project has been incredibly beneficial and enlightening to me as a journalist. FOIA requests are something I will continue to use in my future articles and other writings, because I believe I have only barely scratched the surface of the possibilities of exercising this constitutional right as a citizen of the United States of America. There is so much information rightly available to us. All we have to do is ask for it.

What To Do With the Information You Actually Get

It has been 18 business days since I refiled FOIA requests to the Fort Worth Department of Planning and Development and the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of Texas. I have yet to receive any response from the U.S. Attorney’s Office regarding my request. However, I did get the documents I requested from the Fort Worth Department of Planning and Development about all building permits filed by Texas Christian University concerning the Worth Hills Building located at the address 3504 Pond Drive, Fort Worth, TX 76109, in the Worth Hills area of TCU’s campus. Just three days after making the request, the files were electronically delivered via email as asked. In the email, the department’s representative graciously relayed that while they have the right to charge a fee for the documents, I was not charged any money for their retrieval and delivery.

In response to my FOIA request, I received 34 pages worth of documents showing six different building permit filings by TCU. Four of these filings were made on October 24, 2012, and the other two were much more recent requests made on June 6, 2014. Of the October filings, one was for a demolition and remodeling of the existing building for $10,000, another for a construction addition to the existing building for a mechanical plant for $4,584,717 and the last two were for the construction of a cooling tower equalling $585,000. Therefore, the proposed total cost of this 2012 project was $5,179,717. You could use this information in an article about TCU’s past growth and how they are using their money on construction. You could also highlight what the specific remodeled aspects of the building were, or you could even write a story on the proposed cost of construction versus the actual cost of construction and how that is consistent or unusual for TCU’s other building projects across campus.

In the June 6, 2014, building permit filings, one document showed the plans for a remodeling of the data center proposed to equal $6,200,000, and the other concerned the construction of a fence and installation of generators for the building expected to reach $1,625,443. Therefore, the total cost of this remodeling project is expected to total a whopping $7,825,443 for one data center in Worth Hills. Numbers like these could be used as supplementary evidence and data points for an article on TCU’s spending habits with construction projects or campus spending in general. These numbers also seem to suggest, that if TCU is putting forth millions of dollars on a data center, then the rest of Worth Hills must also be receiving quite an upgrade. With more investigation, a reporter could probably find exact building floor plans and the proposed future of the entire Worth Hills area.

While these numbers may not be an article in and of themselves, they would be an incredible resource to supplement the points in an article with concrete data figures and numbers. Every story is made stronger when evidence can be shown for the arguments that are being made, so having exact numbers is one way to provide that evidence and gain credibility with your readers. Although it takes more time to ask for and sort through data such as this, it can add so much to an article and show a side that other people may not have revealed in mere interviews. Plus, your readers will appreciate the hard work and diligence you put into making the story the best it could be. So, take the time to find the numbers, because they may end up being the key to your story.

Attached below are all of the documents I received from the Fort Worth Department of Planning and Development. Please feel free to look through them and come to your own conclusions. Enjoy!

Fort Worth Department of Planning and Development documents

FOIA Request Do-overs

For the past two weeks, I have been in communication with both the Fort Worth Department of Planning and Development and the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of Texas. I received a response from both agencies within the required time frame of 20 business days. However, I have yet to receive any documents due to a few needs for clarification.

First, the FOIA request I filed with the City of Fort Worth required an address in order to search the database. I then tried to ask if they could search within 3 miles of a specific address. However, according to a representative from the Department of Planning and Development, they can only search an exact address and cannot search by block or miles. Therefore, to accommodate this requirement, I resubmitted a FOIA request that only asked for building permits concerning the Worth Hills Building located in the Worth Hills area of TCU’s campus, which is supposedly going to be torn down within the next few years. I used that specific building as the exact address, because I know TCU is planning the further develop the entire area around that building. If received, the plans for the Worth Hills Building will give me a better idea of how the rest of the area is planning to be used.

The second problem I ran into was with the files I requested from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of Texas. Assistant Director of the U.S. Department of Justice Susan B. Gerson replied to my request stating that the contents of my request could not be fulfilled because they were “concerning a third party (or third parties).” The letter read, “Records pertaining to a third party generally cannot be released absent express authorization and consent of the third party, proof that the subject of your request is deceased, or a clear demonstration that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the personal privacy interest and that significant public benefit would result from the disclosure of the requested records.” I can understand how the release of records concerning human trafficking victims would be a breach of the victims’ privacy. Therefore, I refiled a FOIA request asking for any public records concerning human trafficking cases, such as news clippings and court records, from January of 1995 to present. These should all be public records and subject to release by a FOIA request.

I was pleased with the responses I received. While I have yet to gain the information I was seeking in both of these FOIA requests, the responses I received were both polite and within the allotted time frame required for a response. Now, it is time to wait again, and this time, I have hopefully avoided any other complications or needs for clarification that could delay my receiving the requested information. However, we will just have to cross our fingers and wait and see.

Please click the link below to view the letter I received from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of Texas in response to the first FOIA request I filed in October.

ORR, ELIZABETH006

Frequently Asked FOIA Questions

It has been 11 days and 8 business days since I filed my two FOIA requests to the appropriate government agencies. However, I have not yet received a response from either agency. Therefore, for this post, I have decided to examine and answer several frequently asked questions that I have explored throughout this process concerning the Freedom of Information Act and how to better understand the rights it grants to citizens.

Who can file a FOIA request?

Anyone! United States citizens, foreign nationals, associations, organizations and universities are all considered as any “person” in the FOIA.

Are there any government agencies that are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act?

Yes. Congress, federal courts, and the Executive Office, which includes the President and all of his immediate advisors, are NOT subject to the federal FOIA. In addition, private agencies are not subject to FOIA requests either. The agencies that fall under the FOIA are all federal, state and local public agencies.

What can type of information can citizens request?

There are nine categories of information that are not required to be released under the FOIA, because they could be harmful to government or private interests. These nine exemptions include:

1. national security information

2. internal personal rules and practices

3. information prohibited from disclosure under other laws

4. confidential business information like trade secrets and financial information

5. inter or intra agency communication that is protected by legal privileges

6. personal privacy

7. information compiled for law enforcement purposes that could interfere with enforcement proceedings, including right to fair trial and unwarranted invasion of personal privacy

8. financial institutions

9. geological information

How much does it cost to file a FOIA request?

There is no initial fee for filing a request. However, agencies can charge for certain types of fees acquired during the process of fulfilling the request, including the time it takes to search for the records and for copying those records. Agencies will generally notify the filer if the charges are projected to exceed $25 in order to allow the individual to narrow or revise the request.

How long do agencies have to respond to a FOIA request?

Under the FIOA, agencies have 20 business days to respond to a FIOA request.

What can I do if I am unsatisfied with the response to my FOIA request?

Individuals can file administrative appeals if the agency’s response to the FIOA request is unsatisfactory. Appeals can be effective in challenging excessive processing delays, fee waiver denials and unwarranted withholding of information.

Tips for Writing and Filing a FOI Request

FIO Request confirmation from the City of Fort Worth department of Planning and Development.

FIO Request confirmation from the City of Fort Worth department of Planning and Development.

I filed both FOI requests today and have attached the submitted documents to this post in order for you to see my specific requests.

When filing a FOI request, it is important to remember several key tips…

1. Address the right department: When filing a FOI request, it is important to send the request to the right department in order to make sure you get the information you need from the appropriate people. Also, address the request to the individual person in charge of handling FOI requests in order to give the document a pointed message and show that you have researched your target department.

2. Be specific: Be specific in your requests. Highlight exactly what you need by spelling it out in sections and points in order to avoid an overwhelming mass of information flooding your inbox or being charged for information you might not necessarily need.

3. Include a note: At the end of the FOI request, include a note asking to be notified of possible charges and requesting the release of the information as it becomes available and not as a whole. In some instances, pieces of the requested information may be more readily available than other portions. The department may choose to hold all of the documents until each piece is ready. However, such practices could take too long and leave you without the information you need. Therefore, include this note to ensure you are receiving information as it becomes available.

4. Thank them: Lastly, a polite thank you can go a long way.

Now that these two FOI requests have been filed, it is time to wait. I will check back in with updates to see how the process is going.

FOI Request for TCU Building Permit Requests

FOI Request to US Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of Texas

How to Actually Act on the Freedom of Information Act

In my Mass Communication Law and Ethics class, we are learning about the Freedom of Information Act and how to actually ask for the information we need as journalists. There is an abundant array of data accessible by law to the general public, and all it takes is a simple “please” in order to get that information. Well, it’s actually a little bit more complicated than that considering there are formal requests that have to be made in a certain structure and rules concerning various information that is off limits. But, in the simplest explanation possible, all it takes is asking in order to get data that could not only give writers story ideas, but could also change the way we view reporting and information gathering as a whole.

Therefore, in order to put this right into action and view the process of FOI requests firsthand, I am going to file two different FOI requests. Throughout the process, I will analyze which one is answered, how much information I actually receive and investigate ways to utilize that information in order to better supplement a story or begin a whole new article.

The first requests focuses on information solely concerning my school and the neighborhoods surrounding the university. In this FOI request, I will ask for all building permit requests and any other development applications and forms submitted by Texas Christian University to the Fort Worth department of Planning and Development from January 2012 to present. I hope to use the requested information to analyze any unreleased, future development plans for Texas Christian University’s campus. The requested material would show where the building would be located and its proposed use. After receiving such information, I could investigate more into the impact any expansion or development would have on the surrounding neighborhoods, zoning expansions or university spending and talk to TCU administrators about the building plans.

The second request impacts a larger community and might be harder information to gather due to its content. In this FOI request, I will ask The United States Attorney’s Office and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Texas for reports documenting human trafficking victims rescued in the Dallas-Fort Worth area since the formation of the North Texas Anti-Trafficking Taskforce in 2005. I would then compare those numbers to the number of human trafficking victims rescued in the DFW area between 1995 and 2004. In light of the recent surge of undocumented children migrating through Texas, I would also like to ask for reports of those rescued victims who were unaccompanied children that had crossed the Texas-Mexico border. I hope to analyze how the number immigrant children and the rise or fall in human trafficking reports are correlated.

These two stories are obviously quite different and embody a range of information. Therefore, it will be interesting to see how each request is handled similarly or differently than the other and why those correlations occur. I look forward to witnessing how freely information actually flows despite our constitutional rights as journalists and citizens. Until then, however, we wait.