Redacted documents are in a binder.
Redacted documents (Doug Jones/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
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Tomorrow marks the end of Sunshine Week, an annual effort to promote and spotlight transparency in government. 

Of course, at the Center for Public Integrity, those efforts are year-round. 
Public Integrity has repeatedly ranked as a leader among news organizations using litigation under the Freedom of Information Act, known as FOIA, to obtain data and documents from government agencies. Peter Newbatt Smith, Public Integrity’s research editor and in-house lawyer, regularly wages court battles on behalf of the newsroom, extracting records the government has attempted to withhold or redact.

Public Integrity’s reporters and editors constantly use records and data pried loose via FOIA and state records laws to fuel deep investigative reporting on the impact of inequality and the systems that drive it — and importantly, make the data and documents public so they can also be used by others. 

“One thing that particularly inspires me about the FOIA is that it can empower individual citizens,” Smith said. “Anyone can make an information request to the government, and that government agency is required to answer. And if they don’t, you can go to court and, if you make your case, a federal judge will require them to respond. That actually happens.”

Smith is the lead lawyer in Public Integrity’s lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense and South Dakota National Guard, which seeks the release of records related to a decision by South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem to deploy the Guard to the Texas-Mexico border earlier this year. The deployment raised issues about private funding of military actions and the use of the military for political purposes. The lawsuit is ongoing.

Recently, Public Integrity reporters used records requests to: 

  • Obtain wage theft investigation data from the U.S. Department of Labor that formed the backbone of “Cheated at Work,” a yearlong series that investigated how widespread wage theft is and how effectively the Labor Department combats it. Public Integrity made public the data and code used in the Cheated at Work investigation earlier this month so it can be used by others.
  • Build and release a national dataset of polling place locations used in the 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020 general elections. The data fueled an investigative project, Barriers to the Ballot Box, that examined the impact of the movement and closure of polling places on voters’ access to the ballot. The project, done in partnership with Stateline, was a finalist for the 2021 Toner Prize for Excellence in National Political Reporting. No public national dataset of polling place locations used in past elections existed previously. These sites are locally controlled, so assembling the data required submitting more than 1,000 public records requests to states and counties. Other newsrooms, including The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, have used the data in their reporting, and it’s been cited in congressional testimony. Most recently, the Campus Voting Access Project this month announced it would use findings from its analysis of voter access on college campuses — which tapped our data — to help target its efforts to expand campus voting for the 2022 midterm elections.  
  • Expose the lengthy delays and inconsistent record-keeping plaguing a District of Columbia program that promises to repair the homes of local residents. Most applicants are seniors and Black homeowners trying to hang on to their homes and resist the pressures of gentrification, but it takes years for promised help to materialize. The story was reported as part of a partnership between the Center for Public Integrity and the Washington Informer. 
  • Shine light on school policing. The “Criminalizing Kids” project analyzed data already publicly available through the U.S. Department of Education’s website. But Public Integrity’s data team helped partner newsrooms work with the data as part of a multi-newsroom collaboration, and reporters filed records requests for police reports and other documents necessary to report out the series. 

Federal agencies received fewer FOIA requests in 2020 than in 2019, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that was released in January. But FOIA backlogs, which have soared in recent years, continued growing during the pandemic. 

In February, a bipartisan group of members of Congress wrote to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, asking him to urge all federal agencies to “respond to requests for information with a presumption of openness and without unnecessary withholdings, redactions, or delays.” 

Garland issued new guidance this week that said agencies must identify a foreseeable harm or legal bar to disclosure for the Justice Department to defend efforts to keep records from the public. “In case of doubt, openness should prevail,” he wrote.

In other words, let the sunshine in.

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Carrie Levine joined the Center for Public Integrity in October 2014 as a federal politics reporter investigating...