When politicians request information: Some danger signs

There was a time when people had no right to know. In 1966 the federal government introduced the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which allowed citizens access to government records. Not all the records, actually. There were nine broad categories that basically said, “These records are none of your business.”

I made a pretty good living filing FOIAs. I had a career batting average of about .150. Most of what I wanted to get at, I was told, “was none of my business.” The information I was able to pry out of the vaults, I think, did some good.

There has been a flurry of Freedom of Information Act filings around the country of late. These particular requests for documents are not from members of the press, or private citizens, but from politicians. From what I can tell, they aren’t looking to better inform the electorate, but to injure people with whom they disagree.

Look no further than Wisconsin. There is a professor of history and environment at Madison named William Cronon. He’s a Rhodes Scholar and the incoming president of the American Historical Association. As a historian, he has been interested in what is going on in his state, and has blogged about conservative politicians’ efforts to attack public employee unions. Because of that the Wisconsin Republican Party has filed a request for the University of Wisconsin to turn over all of Professor Cronon’s emails. The party, apparently, wants to know who he’s been talking to, and what he is thinking.

William Cronon
Photo by Hilary Fey Cronon
William Cronon

When I was in college I knew two professors who had studied the history of Vietnam and made comments in classrooms that the war was misguided. They were taken for communists and the university asked them to leave. Some parents of students, and big donors to the school, who thought the war was a good thing, demanded the dismissal of the “un-American” instructors. In other words, political attacks on the academy are nothing new.

The University of Wisconsin is standing behind Professor Cronon, while, at the same time, complying with the law. It says it will release all documents sought by the Republicans, with the exception of anything that has to do with students, any communications unrelated to Cronon’s job and any emails that the school says are private communications between scholars. In other words, the University of Wisconsin is saying, “What you ask for is none of your business.”

The case in Virginia
Another politician is trying the same thing in Virginia with roughly the same outcome.

Ken Cuccinelli is the attorney general of Virginia. He is a Tea Party guy. He has launched an investigation into Dr. Michael Mann. Cuccinelli is telling everyone that he is investigating Dr. Mann for committing fraud in obtaining grants while he was on the faculty of the University of Virginia. A judge quashed his request for Dr. Mann’s emails because the attorney general failed to present one scintilla of evidence that any such fraud had ever occurred.

The University of Virginia is on Mann’s side. Its president, John Casteen III, said the FOIA requests have “sent a chill through the Commonwealth’s colleges and universities,” and added that the chill is being felt around the country.

So why, you might ask, is Cuccinelli doing this to Mike Mann?

Dr. Michael Mann
Creative Commons
Dr. Michael Mann

Well, Dr. Mann is the scientist whose research resulted in the “hockey stick” graph that shows the planet has warmed abnormally over the past century. His work, by the way, has been confirmed by a dozen other studies. But Dr. Mann’s science, and Ken Cuccinelli’s Tea Party line that global warming isn’t happening, cannot exist in the same world. Since Mann’s science cannot be disproved, Cuccinelli needs to, it seems, destroy Dr. Mann.

Mann told me: “The parallels between my situation and Cronon’s is remarkable. In fact, they are closer than you might realize.”

I presume Dr. Mann is referring to the appearance of the Koch brothers in both of these cases.  Mann says the FOIA requests for his files have been pushed by Koch front groups. If you aren’t aware, the arch-conservative billionaire brothers have more influence in American politics and public policy than seems reasonable. They made their fortune in fossil fuels, and they give lots of money to organizations and politicians who fight any attempt curb CO2 emissions and who support ultra-conservative legislation.

There is, by the way, a lot of Koch money flowing into Minnesota. They also fund groups whose main object, it seems, is to keep Americans confused about the science of global warming. Koch money was influential in the election of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has led the attack on the public employee unions Professor Cronon blogged about.

According to The New York Times, an anti-union rally in February at the Wisconsin Capitol featured Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity. He told the crowd the Wisconsin union cuts were just the start of a national movement to slash public-sector union benefits. According to the Times, Phillips failed to tell the crowd that his Virginia based group was created by Charles G. and David H. Koch.

Is Minnesota next?
Is there an ill wind blowing from the East? Could Minnesota soon be feeling the chill?

I asked Professor John Abraham at the University of St. Thomas. Abraham has mixed it up with some of the anti-science Republicans at the Minnesota Legislature. He also is famous for having dismantled the rantings of Christopher Monckton, a noted global warming denier. When Abraham was done, there wasn’t much left of Monckton. The discredited Monckton is no longer the darling of the denier set. But Abraham has stuck his neck out. No one would be surprised if an FOIA request landed on his desk.

As Mann and Cronon have done, Abraham is relying on the strong support of the university community.

“Often, threats and attempts at censorship are made to intimidate universities and their employees,” Abraham told me. “When a university defends its employees and affords protection from intimidation, it sends a clear message.”

Abraham has come under a series of verbal and written assaults as his stature in the global warming science community has grown. He is something of a lightning rod. Abraham said, “The University of St. Thomas has shown uncommon courage…and defended me against unfounded and personal attacks.”

I deeply believe in the Freedom of Information Act and the Minnesota Data Practices Act and why they are necessary. If I ran a news operation, I would require everyone on the staff to file 10 requests for information every year, just to keep the law well-oiled, and to remind officials the people’s work can’t be conducted in secret. The father of Minnesota’s law, Don Gemberling, told me, however, the law is clear. He said, “It doesn’t ask, ‘Who wants to know, and why do you want to know it?'”

It would be a sad day when more FOIA and Data Practices requests were being filed by political powers with the intent to humiliate, than by the inquiring press. My fear is that a good law, misused for political purposes, will excite well-intentioned but misguided government officials into weakening a law that does much good, and has taken a half century to create.

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Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Dale Hoogeveen on 04/05/2011 - 03:22 am.

    Very well said. The various types of Sunshine Laws need to be kept as open as possible. That means that official misuse must be stopped by the responsible organizations, so that legitimate privacy is protected and that enforced by a combination of the queried institutions and the courts. They definitely should not be restricted by law.

    It should be remembered that the Sunshine Laws are aimed at government and public officials; so private citizens and the news they have access to can provide the maximum information to enable informed political decisions. They were not and are not aimed at private citizens’ conversations nor academic scholarship. That is why officials need to get court orders to access private information. Academic scholarship is subject to intense professional review prior to publication to insure its legitimacy.

    Sunshine laws were never meant for governmental use against members of the public; being employed by a public body does not change that. The avenues available to governmental intrusion into private behavior are severely restricted to protect legitimate privacy. That protected freedom is basic to our country nor is it at all at odds with Sunshine Laws. It is in fact basic to them.

  2. Submitted by Karl Bremer on 04/05/2011 - 07:16 am.

    When is the State Legislature going to repeal the exemption from the Data Practices Act it has carved out for itself? And likewise the exemption from FOIA that Congress has feathereed its nest with?

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/05/2011 - 07:44 am.

    ….It would be a sad day when more FOIA and Data Practices requests were being filed by political powers with the intent to humiliate, than by the inquiring press…

    I am not so sanguine as to believe that “the inquiring press” is an impartial instigator of investigations. There is a large segment of printed and broadcast press that IS directed at achieving specific ends, whereby a persons actions and/or views are distorted and misrepresented to either stir-up those who need to be stirred, or to discredit otherwise legitimate positions.

    It’s a very fine line between legitimate investigation and simply snooping to find “dirty laundry” or a “bloody shirt” to wave.

    It says a lot about human nature when we attribute the noblest of purposes to those who we want to believe and the darkest of schemes to those we want to blame. Perhaps what we really need to do is know a little more of human nature and gain a little more maturity in discerning when we are being manipulated.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/05/2011 - 08:43 am.

    I think it’s important to note the activities of politicians, and I appreciate the heads up, but FOIA is for everyone, and it only pertains government records. The funny thing is that these politicians are so ignorant about the academia that they think filing a FOIA request will get them them some special information. Academic research is not a secret unless it’s defense related for the most part, and the academics in question here have all published they’re work in peer reviewed journals… it’s already in the public record, you don’t have to file a FOIA to get it. If your investigating fraud your going to need subpoena’s not FOIA requests, and yeah, you gotta run those by a judge.

    It’s typical and a little scary that the Republican’s are trying to go after the scientist when they can’t get the science on their side, but it’s actually funny that they’re trying to use FOIA to do it, it’s kinda stupid. It reveals a considerable scientific ignorance of these politicians. The climate science and the research behind it is all published, you don’t need FOIA to look at it.

    I agree with Neal however, I don’t think we can assume that the media’s use of FOIA is necessarily more noble than anyone else. I’m not prepared to assume that a FOIA filled by Jason Lewis or Katherine Kersten is motivated by noble desires for a free and informed citizenry. Motivations are tricky, but actions sometimes speak for themselves. In this case it’s clear that some Republicans, having lost the scientific battle, are trying to politicize the science and drag it onto a field of battle they think they have an advantage on.

  5. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 04/05/2011 - 09:21 am.

    Clearly our “conservative” friends are grasping at straws, desperately seeking to find something, ANYTHING that will bolster their dysfunctional psychological desire to continue to live in a world which they have (at least within their own hearts, minds, souls and imaginations) restructured to celebrate all the things they are still able to do and denigrate all the things which they, having the pieces of their personalities capable of empathy, compassion, and trust (even for the earth itself), are NOT able to do).

    The truth of the science is now so overwhelming and so threatens their ability to remain locked away in their own, tidy little alternate reality, that they must now desperately seek for some way to discredit those scientists who are the source of the truths they are so unable to face.

    Sadly, at some point, as was the case with “climatgate,” they will find something in the answers to these FOIA requests that they can distort and take out of context in order to convince themselves and those who share their dysfunctions that these eminent scientists, historians, and other academics are not trustworthy in some way and, therefore, everything they’ve ever said (no matter how accurate, factual, and verifiable) can be discarded.

    Of course, a corollary to these attacks on individual professors is the desire, so clearly demonstrated in bills moving through the Minnesota Legislature, to simply damage and eventually dismantle higher education so that those whose accurate facts, information and research so often threaten the boundaries of the dysfunctional conservative alternate reality will never again be in a position to do so.

    Thereby, future generations will come to see the “conservative” alternate reality as the only reality and all those who are still healthy enough to disagree with it will have no support within society as they press us all toward healthier, more sustainable living as individuals and as a culture.

  6. Submitted by dennis mcdonald on 04/05/2011 - 09:54 am.

    I’m a Virginia resident and taxpayer. I’ve tried repeatedly to find out how much Attorney General Cuccinelli’s office is spending on the Mann persecution but to no avail. I know for a fact that the Attorney General’s office has a time tracking system — what law office doesn’t? — but my requests have gone unanswered. One would think that someone pursuing such a cause would be willing to reveal the costs to supporters as well as non-supporters, but such is not the case. And I resent having to resort to the time and cost of a FOIA request when such expenditures should be matters of public record anyway. Here’s some background: http://ddmcd.posterous.com/34295859

  7. Submitted by Tim Walker on 04/05/2011 - 10:37 am.

    Wait, you mean the GOPers are adopting McCarthyist tactics?

    Wow, who’d a thunk it?

  8. Submitted by Cecil North on 04/05/2011 - 11:19 am.

    Lucky thing for Dr. Abraham that he’s at a private university and is thus immune from FOIA-based harassment. However, college and university professors had better watch out: our academic institutions, both public and private, are fast becoming a favored hunting preserve for neocons and tea-baggers anxious to mount more trophies on their walls.

    Already, large conservative donors are exercising out-sized influence on everything from outside speaker choices to curriculum. When they’ve finished packing the boards of academic institutions with their fellow travelers, school administrations that once sheltered people like Dr. Abraham will become just another manifestation of the storm-trooping neocon mob.

    Sadly, our professors will have to learn to look to themselves for protection of academic freedom.

  9. Submitted by Chris Opsal on 04/05/2011 - 11:48 am.

    4/1/11 update to the Cronon story:
    “We have dutifully reviewed Professor Cronon’s records for any legal or policy violations, such as improper uses of state or university resources for partisan political activity. There are none.”

  10. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 04/05/2011 - 12:09 pm.

    @#7 => I agree …. This is just more corroborating evidence that “reincarnation” is real and undeniable.

    And as for “information” … yes, it is a tool, a dangerous tool. Wise men have repeatedly told us that information cannot supplant Knowledge.

    I think, perhaps, it is time for all of us to brush up on the words and wisdom of the likes of Sinclair Lewis, George Bernard Shaw, and George Orwell, to name a few.

  11. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/05/2011 - 12:42 pm.

    For the most part, I’m very much on board with Don’s second-to-last paragraph. FOIA fills some very important roles, and in general, I’d support its use just about anywhere. Clearly, the intent on the part of the autocratic Koch brothers and their lackeys is to intimidate, but as Paul pointed out, when it’s science that’s being disputed, an FOIA request is basically misguided, since the work has likely been published and peer reviewed already.

    Not quite the same thing with Prof. Cronon, where the intent to intimidate seems obvious. Republicans are looking for… what?… in his emails? It’s simply the latest in a very long line of attempts by people who call themselves “conservative” (without having a clue as to what the term means) to limit the freedom of speech of people whose opinions the right-wingers find objectionable. These sorts of intimidation tactics are the antithesis of democracy.

  12. Submitted by Rich Crose on 04/05/2011 - 12:44 pm.

    Can’t two play that game?

    File a request against the party’s people to find out if they’ve been filing requests to harass people who disagree with them.

    They have email too. Let them cull them for the one’s to their mistresses, millionaire donors and gay lovers.

  13. Submitted by Martin Moen on 04/05/2011 - 01:04 pm.

    Having been on the receiving end of an FOIA or two, I know the time and effort that goes into complying with the request. I wonder if these frivolous FOIA requests are really intended to distract public officials from doing their work so that those who hate public employees can claim we are inefficient.

    Perhaps I am being too cynical, but how many of Don’s successful FOIA requests turned up real dirt? Ten FOIA requests per year per reporter just to keep the machinery oiled seems to border on a waste of taxpayer dollars.

    FOIA is critically important to our republic as long as it is used for public good.

  14. Submitted by Scott Henry on 04/05/2011 - 01:39 pm.

    I shared this post with a friend in NW Wisconsin. He responded:

    One of the other vexing details of Walker’s “budget bill” is making the FOIA office political appointees, and not civil service.

  15. Submitted by donald maxwell on 04/05/2011 - 01:57 pm.

    This is a good discussion of FOIA, but the elephant in the living room is the role of the Koch brothers and their unlimited money dedicated to doing mischief to this republic. Their thuggery compares to that of Rupert Murdock in destroying the social fabric of this country.

    If we can’t curb the overwhelming influence of a handful of warped billionaires on our elections and public policy, what is the inevitable outcome?

  16. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 04/05/2011 - 03:28 pm.

    They don’t have to turn up “real dirt” and that is not their intention. The modus operandi of conservatives who are trying to make trouble is to cherry pick, edit and rearrange words ala Acorn, climategate, Sherrod, and NPR. That is how they have had some of their greatest successes in swaying public opinion.

  17. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 04/05/2011 - 03:34 pm.

    Is there really any alternative to the press and public getting better at picking out when sentences are taken out of context? I do mean both the press as well as public, because by the time news gets public, there’s an assumption the press has tried to figure it out. Unfortunately, much of the press prefers to go for the scoop, so they’ll take something like “climategate” and just report the first claims without checking them. It shouldn’t have been up to climate change hawk bloggers to figure out the climate deniers were taking individual sentences out of context and misstating what they were about. The fear of these FOIA requests isn’t that political enemies will misuse what they find, but that the press will pass on the falsehoods, and employers will quickly fire innocent people in hope the scandal goes away, and careers will be destroyed before the truth gets out.

    These FOIA requests and “climategate” seem like just an e-mail version of the fake video that got NPR executives and Shirley Sherrod fired, and closed down ACORN. The people whose e-mail is being requested have a right to be nervous, because the press has been through this several times and makes the same mistakes every time. They never learn to check before reporting, and the smearmongers have learned to take advantage.

  18. Submitted by David Hanners on 04/05/2011 - 03:44 pm.

    “I am not so sanguine as to believe that “the inquiring press” is an impartial instigator of investigations. There is a large segment of printed and broadcast press that IS directed at achieving specific ends, whereby a persons actions and/or views are distorted and misrepresented to either stir-up those who need to be stirred, or to discredit otherwise legitimate positions.

    “It’s a very fine line between legitimate investigation and simply snooping to find “dirty laundry” or a “bloody shirt” to wave.”

    As a journalist, I am sick and tired of stuff like the two paragraphs quoted above. They were written without providing an ounce of evidence to back them up. They were written without providing one bit of detail or inside knowledge as to what journalists do on a daily basis and why we do it. Go trash some other profession. I refuse to be a shrinking violet for mine.

  19. Submitted by David Willard on 04/05/2011 - 08:10 pm.

    Love the irrational fear and loathing guys and gals. Shows the adults have a chance at grabbing the country back from the progs. It’s weird when someone turns your tactics around. Bazinga! You are welcome

  20. Submitted by John Olson on 04/05/2011 - 08:34 pm.

    #18, try watching Fox News. Or MSNBC. Both have done nice jobs of trashing your profession for you.

  21. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/06/2011 - 01:21 pm.

    David #18,

    I guess we can talk about who a “journalist” is, but I think Katherine Kersten’s treatment of the Tiza Academy constitutes at least one agenda laden application of public records by someone in the media.

    Mind you I’m not complaining I’m just pointing out the fact that Journalists cannot be assumed to be working on behalf of some public interest we can all agree on.

    My complaint is that if anything Journalists don’t dig deep enough or file enough FOIAs.

  22. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 04/06/2011 - 11:38 pm.

    @#19 – Love the irrational fear and loathing guys and gals. Shows the adults have a chance at grabbing the country back from the progs.

    Don’t know what you are getting delirious about?

    “adults” ?? … You mean a-dolts?!

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