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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.

About the Author

Rosland Gammon is a former business journalist turned college instructor. Her newsroom experience includes reporting for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and reporting and editing at Bloomberg News. Gammon currently teaches communications at Alverno College in Milwaukee. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Rosland Gammon

Comments (1)

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  1. Tim Echols says:

    Kristi is a great reporter, and when reporters build relationships and good will with regulators like me they are more prone to get access and assistance. In this story, Kristi received my day by day travel diary that I keep, an opportunity to watch me fuel up my CNG alt-fuel car, documents that she didn’t even know to request through FOIA, and a two hour interview.

    Having a Masters in Mass Communication/PR myself, I appreciate gooed reporting. The story gave me an opportunity to come back with two Op Eds: one of the importance of officials getting out of the office, and the other on the important role of “family” in political activity of a statewide elected official. The story was balanced and fair, and asked questions that the average person might want to know. The burden was then on me to explain what and why I was doing, and make the case that it is right and a good use of taxpayers’ money. To see the Op Eds, simply good “Tim Echols” and click “news” and follow the links.

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