Panning for gold in government files Businesses make most of public right to know

July 28, 1997|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Three decades ago, when Congress opened government files to public scrutiny under the Freedom of Information Act, the rhetoric was all about crusading journalists, truth-seeking historians and the people's right to know.

No one talked about giving businesses an edge in bidding for government contracts. Or financing research for personal injury lawyers. Or helping politicians dig up dirt on their opponents.

But laws take on a life of their own. Today, a typical user of the Freedom of Information Act might be Ronald Draughon, who bombards federal agencies with about 25 demands for documents each week. Vice president of Atlantic Coast Contracting, a little company in Dunn, N.C., that runs cafeterias and hauls trash on military bases, he mines agency memos and competitors' proposals for business tips.

"Sometimes it's like reading a mystery -- you see an angle you hadn't thought of," Draughon says. His competitors also use the act, he says: "I think anyone doing business with the government has got to use FOIA. If they're not, they're operating blind."

Prolific use

The Freedom of Information Act, which took effect 30 years ago, has been used many times in ways its creators anticipated, to expose government fraud, reveal FBI abuses or unearth the secret history of the Cold War. But businesses, panning for gold in government paperwork, long ago became the act's most prolific users.

"Businesses and lawyers working for businesses make the lion's share of requests -- probably close to 75 percent," says Harry Hammitt, who publishes the FOIA newsletter Access Reports from his Lynchburg, Va., home. "I think the way the act is used is completely different from what Congress anticipated in 1966."

Companies pay only a small fraction of the cost of their requests, making the FOIA a taxpayer-subsidized research service for industry. Last year, for instance, the Defense Department spent $35 million replying to information-seekers and collected just $952,566.11 in fees from them.

Yet advocates for journalists are likewise loath to criticize FOIA's exploitation by business or anyone else, fearing limits for one group will mean limits for all.

"You're not going to hear a complaint from me about anyone using the act," says Rebecca Daugherty, who runs the Freedom of Information Service Center at Reporters' Committee for a Free Press. The problem with FOIA is not its users, but its loopholes, Daugherty says. "It's working far too slowly, and there are far too many denials."

About 600,000 requests are filed with federal agencies each year under FOIA -- the act's nickname, pronounced "foya," with affection or contempt -- or about one every 12 seconds, every working day.

It has spawned a sprawling bureaucracy, though not one big enough to keep up with demand. Many agencies merely acknowledge the request by the law's 20-day deadline, taking months or years to produce the documents. The FBI, which has boosted its FOIA staff to more than 350 workers, is struggling with a 15,000-request backlog and takes an average of 800 days to comply with requests, says spokesman John Collingwood.

An industry spawned

The act has created a cottage industry of FOIA attorneys who file requests for a fee -- or engage in the arcane art of "Reverse FOIA," blocking the release of clients' data by claiming it is

confidential and therefore exempt.

Lawyers work the Consumer Product Safety Commission files for potentially lucrative claims.

"We use the FOIA all the time to find out about defective products," says Sean Rocha, a paralegal with Grassini & Wrinkle Los Angeles. Most recently he compiled data on defective reclining chairs for a claim by the family of a California boy killed when a recliner closed on him.

Not all FOIA users are motivated by money. Political candidates routinely use the act to root for embarrassing material on opponents. "We use FOIA as a quality-control check," says Peter Lindstrom, research director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "We review the story a candidate is telling and make sure it's true. It's sort of like calling someone's hand in poker."

Prisoners flood the FBI with inquiries on their cases -- including one convict who inadvertently confessed to an unsolved bank robbery years ago by including incriminating details in his FOIA request, says Richard L. Huff, a Department of Justice FOIA officer.

UFO enthusiasts barrage the Air Force with demands. Delusional people ask the CIA about the radio signals they believe are beamed to their brains.

There are even FOIA hobbyists, such as Michael J. Ravnitsky of St. Paul, Minn., who has flooded a dozen agencies with 2,200 FOIA requests.

"I think FOIA is great fun. It's a national treasure," says Ravnitsky, who recently got a bill for $18,000 in costs from the FBI. He says he's not paying.

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