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Don’t just settle for regulatory filings; use FOIA to get more details

FOIA public records Electronic Frontier Foundation

Maybe you've experienced feelings similar to those expressed by Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyers Marcia Hoffman and Nate Cardozo upon receiving government documents in response to a FOIA request. Photo by Flickr user ElectronicFrontierFoundation.

Kristi Swartz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution requested travel expenses for members of the Georgia Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, and found one commissioner was spending more than others. She writes:

“In his short term in office, Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols has billed for expenses in excess of $12,300, nearly doubling the spending of the commissioner with the next highest amount and leaving his colleagues to question the legitimacy of his nonstop travel.

He says his ‘strenuous speaking schedule’ and travel are intended to raise the stature of the Public Service Commission, which he believes is part of his job as a commissioner.”

Kristi’s story says his trips included one to Savannah to showcase his personal, compressed-natural-gas-fueled car in a St. Patrick’s Day parade. That trip cost $1,231.42.

Today’s Tip:  Go beyond 10Ks and regulatory documents, Kristi says.

Kristi Swartz, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter

Kristi Swartz

“Those are things reporters don’t need an open records law to view (in most cases), so for me, it was easy to forget all of the other information I could get with a simple FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) email,” she says. “It’s become more clear to me that paying close attention to things such as a utility regulator’s expenses, lobbyist reports and campaign expenses may give me a fuller picture beyond just looking at, for example, a company’s regulatory filing.”

She requested the expenses of all five utility regulators, then checked with the agency to find out what could and couldn’t be expensed, she says. For example, some regulators, who are required to live in the districts they represent, can’t expense the mileage for their commute to Atlanta, she says. “I wanted to make sure I was clear on what the state rules were before I drew a conclusion on whether those policies were being abused.”

Kristi also suggests checking expense reports every few months to see if there’s been any change. Here’s a letter generator for FOIA requests.

In Basics, Best Practices, Energy | Utilities | Mining, Featured, Rosland Gammon.