March 21 marks the end of this year’s Sunshine Week — seven days to celebrate and encourage transparency in government.
The first Sunshine Week took place in 2005 and has since become the darling of journalists and fans of open government across the country.
But while things have certainly improved in the past 10 years, truly transparent government still has a long way to go.
From long-lost Freedom of Information Act requests to the old fashioned “no comment”, here are some of the many ways government officials can withhold information.
1. Blacked out FOIA responses
Center for Public Integrity senior reporter Fred Schulte filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in May of 2013 with the federal Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services. He asked for a wide range of Medicare Advantage records, including copies of program audits, billing data, emails and other documents that identified any private insurance plans suspected of overcharging the government.
After getting no response for a year, the Center for Public Integrity filed suit in federal court in May of 2014 to force the government to release the records. Earlier this month, officials sent a batch of records, including dozens of emails. Almost everything said in the emails was blacked out.
2. Delay and redirect
Managing editor for politics and finance Alison Fitzgerald filed a series of FOIA requests to the Department of Justice when she first arrived at the Center for Public Integrity in 2013. The department’s response, a year and a half later in one case, included redirecting the request to another department within the DOJ. (Note: The subject of the FOIAs has been removed because they are part of an ongoing investigation.)
3. The ‘no comment’
In 2014, the Center for Public Integrity launched a Tumblr to collect the many ways government officials say the same thing: “no comment.”
We’ve also published some of those instances, like this 3 month exchange with the Environmental Protection Agency as part of our “Big Oil, Bad Air” investigation. Since publishing this exchange, the Center for Public Integrity conducted an on-the-record interview with Ron Curry, EPA regional administrator in Dallas, Texas, about the environmental issues associated with oil and gas production.
4. Varying disclosure laws
Last spring, the Center for Public Integrity graded each state on the degree to which state supreme court judges had to disclose their financial ties. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia received a failing grade in a Center evaluation of disclosure requirements for supreme court judges.
The investigation found 14 instances in the past three years in which justices participated in cases where they or their spouses owned stock in companies involved in the litigation. In an reviewing similar financial disclosures for federal appellate judges, the Center found that the reports were often heavily redacted.
5. Old fashioned paper filings
Unlike other federal candidates, such as those who will be running for president in 2016, U.S. Senate candidates are currently not required to file their campaign finance documents electronically. The Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act would change that. As an added bonus, the Congressional Budget Office estimates e-filing could save taxpayers up to $500,000 a year. Despite enjoying bipartisan support, this bill to make Senate campaigns more transparent has yet to reach the Senate floor.
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