A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists


By Quill

Impact of Ashcroft memo debated

Nearly half of the U.S. government’s Freedom of Information Act officials surveyed said Attorney General John Ashcroft’s tightening of FOIA guidelines has had little effect on how much information is being released.

Forty-eight percent of government officials surveyed by the General Accounting Office, Congress’ watchdog agency, said little effect can be seen following Ashcroft’s 2001 FOIA memorandum, an audit released in September shows.

However, The Associated Press reported that 31 percent of those questioned feel less information has been released since the directive was made.

Ashcroft changed existing FOIA policy in October 2001, requiring agencies to carefully consider national security, law enforcement concerns and personal privacy before dispersing information.

His predecessor as attorney general, Janet Reno, had largely promoted making information public, the GAO said.

News orgs win access to coach contract

The details of University of Hawaii football coach June Jones’ new contract were made available to the press in September, following a four-year debate about their release.

The order to open the documents was made in August by Hawaii’s Office of Information Practices.

Hawaiian news organizations initially sought the release of Jones’ contract in February 1999. Stalling by the University had kept the records closed to the public until early September.

The office’s decision applies to both the 1998 contract and the $4 million extension he signed in September.

Jones is the highest paid public employee in Hawaii, according to the Associated Press.

Paper challenges hospital exemption

A small North Florida newspaper challenged a state statute that exempts a hospital’s leaders from prosecution under Florida’s open government laws.

The Baker County Press, seeking information from Indian River Memorial Hospital, urged the state’s 1st District Court of Appeal in September to declare a 1998 act by the Florida Legislature unconstitutional. The act exempts meetings and business records of some community hospitals from Florida’s Government in the Sunshine laws.

The weekly newspaper’s victory would have weight elsewhere when not-for-profit organizations want to keep public hospitals’ funding under wraps, lawyers told Florida’s The Press Journal.

The newspaper lost its case in a Florida circuit court earlier in 2003.

School official charged with FOI violation

A Texas school superintendent was the first Texan ever criminally charged in violation of the state’s Public Information Act when a jury convicted him Aug. 29.

Llano Independent School District Superintendent Jack Patton was then sentenced by State District Judge V. Murray Jordan to six months probation, a suspended 180-day jail sentence and a $1,000 fine. Patton’s crime was refusing to release school credit card records to journalists at a local newspaper. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the conviction stemmed from a request by Tom Alberts, editor of the Llano Buzz and County Journal, who sought records relating to pricey dinners and hotel rooms purchased with school district credit cards.

The superintendent said these types of records did not exist. The newspaper later discovered that some of the records had already been disclosed to an area resident.

It then filed a complaint with the Texas attorney general’s office, which later indicted Patton.

Rhode Island agencies violated FOI law

Most public agencies in Rhode Island failed to comply with one of the state’s most basic disclosure laws, a Brown University study published in September uncovered.

Twenty-three “quasi-public” state agencies rarely or never made records of meetings public in 2002, which violates the state’s Open Meetings Law.

The study was published by the Taubman Center for Public Policy.

None of the agencies released all its minutes on time. In Rhode Island, such agencies are required to release minutes to the Secretary of State’s office within 35 days of a given meeting. In 2002, six agencies, and possibly more, submitted no minutes whatsoever.

In Rhode Island, airports, bus systems, landfills and sewage treatment plants are considered quasipublic agencies, an account by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said.

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