A pedophile priest moved parish to parish, a state lawmaker’s questionable military record and other recent stories in The Seattle Times were made possible by public records. Happy National Freedom of Information Day, dear readers!
These days, there’s a special day for pretty much everything.
Did you know Tuesday, March 15, was National Pears Helene Day? For those furiously Googling, that’s a dish of vanilla-poached pears served with chocolate-sauce glaze and ice cream.
As it turns out, Tuesday was also National Everything You Think Is Wrong Day.
The endless supply of special days (and who decides on these designations, anyway?) can feel trite.
But Wednesday’s designation, National Freedom of Information Day, warms the hearts of even the most jaded journalists.
Freedom of Information laws provide reporters, and everyday citizens, the legal backing to get the information they want and need.
How to make a records request
Anyone can make a request for public documents. Requests should typically be directed to the government agency that keeps the documents or information desired, including agencies at the federal, state, county and city level.
Here’s a sample request for Washington state from the National Freedom of Information Coalition
This year is the 50th anniversary of the passage of the federal Freedom of Information Act. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill into law July 4, 1966, and said in a statement that he felt “a deep sense of pride that the United States is an open society in which people’s right to know is cherished and protected.”
The Seattle Times has relied on public records to tell countless crucial stories. Here are a few that stand out from the past year:
Political reporter Jim Brunner examined state Rep. Graham Hunt’s claims about his military background. Brunner was able to examine pieces of Hunt’s military record, and found discrepancies about his story and even a doctored photo. Hunt declined to allow further disclosure of his military record and could not substantiate claims he’d made about medals he said he’d won. Hunt later resigned.
Columnist Gene Balk, aka the FYI Guy, analyzed the Seattle Police Department’s response times to five years of 911 calls. He found that how quickly SPD cops responded depended on where the call came from. Balk also found that certain types of calls, including domestic-violence calls, elicited slower response times from police.
Using court records, reporter Lewis Kamb was able to show how the Seattle Catholic Archdiocese enabled a pedophile priest’s abuse of children over the course of decades. Details of the Rev. Michael Cody’s actions were revealed in a secret file that surfaced as a result of a lawsuit against the archdiocese.
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In a series of stories called The Mobile-Home Trap, Seattle Times reporter Mike Baker, in partnership with BuzzFeed News and the Center for Public Integrity, revealed how a mobile-home company controlled by billionaire Warren Buffett exploits poor people and minorities. Mortgage-disclosure data, Securities and Exchange Commission filings and court records helped tell the story.
By analyzing court documents, corporate filing and tax records, business reporter Matt Day demonstrated how Microsoft funnels profit through a web of subsidiaries to minimize how much the company pays in taxes. Day showed how Microsoft completed intracompany deals that allowed it to reduce its tax bill by tens of billions of dollars.
Reporter Lewis Kamb obtained records of email communication among members of the University of Washington’s Board of Regents and other officials. The emails showed the selection of Ana Mari Cauce as university president likely violated the state’s Open Meetings Act because her selection was seemingly decided before a public vote.
A federal database of wildlife declaration records showed that Seattle plays a substantial role in the legal shipment of trophy-hunting animals.
Since 1999, more than 39,000 African trophy animals have been legally shipped through Seattle, including nearly 250 lions, 15 white rhinoceroses, nearly 200 elephants, more than 300 leopards and nearly 1,200 cape buffaloes.
Using state Department of Health records, health reporter JoNel Aleccia revealed how a Clallam County woman was likely exposed to the measles. The 28-year-old woman was the first person to die from measles since 2003. The measles death wasn’t reported to the public for several months.
A Seattle Times analysis of a decade of police records found that only one officer in Washington has been criminally charged with the illegal use of deadly force. The Times used public-records requests and death certificates to analyze 213 police encounters from 2005 to 2014, and explained how police were protected from prosecution by the language of a 1986 law requiring malice, or “evil intent,” for a cop to be charged.
Public records obtained by Seattle Times reporters shed light on a violent incident involving Seattle Seahawks draft pick Frank Clark and his girlfriend. Clark was originally charged with domestic violence and assault, but those charges were reduced to “persistent disorderly conduct.” Reporter Geoff Baker showed that the Seahawks did not interview Clark’s girlfriend about the incident before drafting Clark.