Inside Publici

Published — March 14, 2018 Updated — March 19, 2018 at 1:16 pm ET

Accessing government records isn’t always easy. Here’s how we’ve pursued them, and why it matters

This Tuesday, May 23, 2017 photo shows copies of Pennsylvania state lawmakers newly filed state financial disclosure forms in Harrisburg, Pa. Matt Rourke/AP

Introduction

Sunshine Week marks a nationwide celebration of access to public information. It also spotlights one of the most crucial elements of investigative journalism, and journalism more broadly: making the workings of government transparent in part by accessing available records.

Hosted annually by the American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Sunshine Week carries with it a slogan, “It’s Your Right to Know.”

Here at the Center for Public Integrity, we agree. We’ve highlighted some of the stories that involved digging through records to defend your right to know: Where your state lawmakers make their money, how many students your state is sending through the prison pipeline, the records behind campus sexual assault and more.

Breaking open the finances of state lawmakers across the country

Our state politics team spent a year gathering the financial disclosure reports of 6,933 legislators from all 47 states that required them, which were then compiled in this disclosure library.

This was a key component of a larger project, which looked at how the financial ties of state legislators can and often do intersect with bills they are supporting.

Obtaining all those financial disclosures wasn’t easy. Some states required our reporters to provide their drivers’ licenses, individually download each report, fill out tedious forms or even drive to the state capitol to ask for the reports in person.

Because the disclosures arrived in various formats, they were impossible to analyze in bulk. So our team manually entered information for each lawmaker into spreadsheets, spent weeks coding the data and then reviewed legislation and recusal rules around the country.

But in the end, we’d like to say it was all worth it because this research powered a fantastic project that allows anyone to easily look up important information about their state legislators. Accountability and government transparency is what we’re all about.

Unfortunately there were 3 states that we couldn’t include in our library. Idaho and Michigan don’t require their legislators to disclose their personal finances. Vermont will start requiring such disclosure this year.

READ MORE:

How we investigated conflicted interests in statehouses across the country

Q&A: What we learned from digging into state legislators’ disclosure forms

Conflicted Interests: State lawmakers often blur the line between the public’s business and their own


How Virginia schools’ discipline policies set students up to go to prison

A major 2015 investigation we published on the school-to-prison pipeline began with our juvenile justice reporter, Susan Ferriss, reviewing U.S. Department of Education data that’s open to public review—without having to resort to the Freedom of Information Act.

Based on that data, she was encouraged to dig deeper into why Virginia’s referrals of students to law enforcement were so much higher than national averages. .

Ferriss then filed a number of Virginia state public record requests with local police departments, which required asking someone on staff who lived in Virginia to co-sign the requests.

Data from those police departments helped reveal critical information about a sampling of local jurisdictions. We found out the volume of kids arrested and/or ticketed and summoned to court, their ages and ethnicities and the nature of the alleged crimes.

Check out the revealing stats from Virginia as well as a state-by-state ranking of the rate of students referred to law enforcement based off of the data.

READ MORE

Virginia tops nation in sending students to cops, courts: Where does your state rank?

On the frontlines of the FOIA fight: Meet Peter Smith, the Center’s Research Editor

Last year, the Center for Public Integrity ranked second among news media outlets in its use of Freedom of Information Act litigation to obtain data from government agencies, according to research by the FOIA Project, an initiative from the Transactional Records Research Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Much of the credit for the Center’s FOIA work belongs to our research editor, Peter Newbatt Smith. Smith is a man of many hats at the Center; he meticulously fact-checks every major story produced by our journalists, but as an attorney, he is also the Center’s indispensible resource on all matters FOIA.

Here’s a Q&A with Smith on why the Center has pursued FOIA lawsuits so vigorously, and how we differ from other organizations in that regard.

A chat with our talented FOIA fighter

Our FOIA fights don’t end there. Check out more FOIA-based stories:

Sexual Assault on Campus

Environmental Justice, Denied

State cutbacks, recalcitrance hinder Clean Air Act enforcement

Oil’s pipeline to America’s schools

Read more in Inside Publici

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