Opinion: Columnists

Examiner Local Editorial: Limits on FOIA allow culture of corruption to flourish

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Photo - D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (Graeme Jennings/Examiner file photo)
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (Graeme Jennings/Examiner file photo)
Opinion,Columnists,Local Editorial

During his campaign for mayor of the District of Columbia, Vincent Gray promised greater transparency in city government. He even agreed to post the District's entire checkbook online, as many jurisdictions already do, providing taxpayers with an easy way to see how their money is spent. Since the mayor has yet to keep that promise, his latest proposal to reduce transparency by tightening the city's open-records law comes as a very unwelcome surprise. And it comes at the worst possible time, given the multiple ethics problems that have plagued the District Council, including the resignation and federal conviction of two of its members so far this year.

As The Examiner's Alan Blinder reported Sunday, D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan has called on Gray's administration to clamp down on disclosure of public documents to "limit abuse by some FOIA requesters," characterizing their requests for public information as "hurting the effectiveness of the District government."

The District government frequently blows off its legal obligation to release public information to the public. Just one example: The Washington Examiner has been trying for months to obtain what should be straightforward data on traffic accidents by location, in order to test the District government's claim that its traffic and red light cameras are actually improving safety, not just raking in $55 million in cash per year.

After our initial FOIA request came back lacking the specific crash data we requested, we got the runaround from the Metropolitan Police Department and the Department of Transportation as to which agency was actually in charge of collecting the data. We recently had to file a second FOIA request seeking the same information we did not receive from the first. Perhaps this is what the attorney general regards as "abuse" of the FOIA system.

Mayor Gray now wants this excruciatingly slow process to take even longer and is also seeking new exemptions for the hundreds of nonprofits that do business with the city. This is not about "streamlining" government. It is not about making city agencies more efficient or effective. It is about deliberately keeping public information out of the sunlight, thus ensuring the culture of corruption that has already seriously undermined citizens' trust in D.C. government continues to flourish in the dark.

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