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D.C. says it broke open records law 926 times in a year

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Local,DC,Alan Blinder,Mary Cheh,David Grosso

The District government violated its own open records law more than 900 times last year when its agencies took at least 26 days to respond to requests filed under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act, a city report shows.

D.C. law requires agencies to respond within 15 business days to records requests, although they can impose a 10-day extension at the government's discretion.

But a review by D.C. Secretary Cynthia Brock-Smith found that on 926 occasions during the past fiscal year, District government agencies waited at least 26 days to process FOIA requests. Under District law, records requests that are not answered during the mandated time period are deemed denied and subject to appeal or litigation, although city agencies often continue to process them.

Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh said the District had assembled "a poor record," and at-large Councilman David Grosso characterized the city's performance as "absolutely ridiculous."

Transparency's cost
The D.C. government spent about $1.3 million last year responding to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The 15.4 percent delayed response rate is the District's highest on record, topping a 15.2 percent figure from the 2009 fiscal cycle.

"We strive to respond to requests in a timely manner, but there are some requests -- some meritless -- that clog the system," said Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Mayor Vincent Gray.

In an effort to "limit abuse" of the FOIA framework, D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan last year asked lawmakers to broaden the reasons the District could withhold records and extend the initial response period to 20 days. The D.C. Council did not approve the proposal.

As legislators weighed Nathan's plan, the District logged a 5 percent increase in records requests, and the number of late replies surged 37 percent.

"The data show need for improvement of administration of the system and strengthening the incentives for the agencies to do the right thing," said Fritz Mulhauser, a member of the D.C. Coalition for Open Government's board.

But D.C. Police Union Chairman Kristopher Baumann, whose organization city officials have criticized for initiating a flood of requests, charged that Gray was deliberately leading a government short on transparency.

"These are public records, and the D.C. government under Gray acts like these records are those of some closed corporation in the Bahamas," said Baumann.

The Metropolitan Police Department, which received more open records requests than any other agency, was responsible for 404 tardy responses -- nearly 44 percent of the total throughout the city government.

Department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump cited four reasons for the agency's response times, including staffing changes and many requests that involved "a voluminous number of documents."

Crump said the department had "undertaken several significant reforms to streamline the FOIA process and to improve the quality of its responses."

ablinder@washingtonexaminer.com

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