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Sunlight Foundation
Washington, DC

The Sunlight Foundation uses technology and ideas to make government transparent and accountable.

The Sunlight Foundation is:

A think-tank that develops and encourages new policies inside the government to make it more open and transparent.
A campaign to engage citizens in demanding the policies that will open government and hold their elected officials accountable for being transparent.
An investigative organization that uses the data we uncover to demonstrate why we need new policies that free government data.
A grant-giving institution that provides resources to organizations using technology to further our mission and create community
An open source technology community that revolves around the Sunlight Foundation’s core mission

Sunlight Foundation is not verified as a 501(c)3 organization.

Latest News

Aug 26, 2016

RUN THOSE NUMBERS AGAIN? An independent assessment found that the federal agency release rate for Freedom of Information Act requests appears to be much lower than the 91% claimed by the Justice Department and touted by the White House. Tom Susman: "If you include full and partial releases as constituting the total release rate, the ratio for all agencies in FY 2015 is 90.6 percent. …That total release rate is not included as part of the FOIA data, but it has been added to the spreadsheet as the last column (highlighted in blue) by adding the released in full and released in part ratios. If you look at the rates separately, for all agencies in FY 2015, the released in full ratio is 51.84 percent and the released in part ratio is 38.76 percent." [READ MORE]

OPACITY: A new group called Our Revolution, launched this week to try to continue the movement that the Bernie Sanders campaign began through fundraising and spending to support “candidates in lockstep with Sanders' ideals.” Jeff Weaver, the group's leader and former campaign manager for Sanders’ presidential campaign, says they're going to rely on small donors. As Libby Watson reports, however, "without releasing the identities of contributors, it’s hard for the public to know whether that really is true. A group that decries the influence of money in politics should know that donor disclosure matters. Even as a 501(c)(4), Our Revolution could set an example for other nonprofits that spend on elections and choose to reveal this crucial information. Without doing that, it’s just another dark money group." [READ MORE]

GOOD, BAD & UGLY: On Tuesday, the Sunlight Foundation joined representatives from eight other open government advocacy organizations and more than a dozen federal agencies in Washington at the National Archives for a series of lightning talks focused on the next round of open government plans. As we highlighted in July, long-awaited White House guidance set a deadline of Sept. 16, 2016, for agencies to answer a series of questions about their progress since President Barack Obama issued his Open Government Directive and publish the next plans mandated by his 2009 executive order. What we heard at the National Archives on Tuesday inspired both hope and concern. [READ MORE]

CAMPAIGN 2016

  On average, 83 percent of the money that was sent from the state committees to the DNC in July originated with a donor who had already given the maximum $33,400 to the national party.
["On average, 83 percent of the money that was sent from the state committees to the DNC in July originated with a donor who had already given the maximum $33,400 to the national party."-- Bill Allison. Graphic Credit: Bloomberg News]
  • Millions of donations from maxed-out donors are flowing from state committees to the Democratic National Committee, reports Sunlight Foundation alumnus Bill Allison. [Bloomberg]
  • Speaking of donations, 27 of the 40 registered lobbyists who have bundled contributions for the 2016 Clinton presidential campaign have either donated to the Clinton Foundation or work at a firm that has donated. [Washington Examiner]
  • The public is largely relying on journalists for information about the presidential transition. Mark Lander:
    "On Thursday, both campaigns met with the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and other senior officials to discuss how the Obama administration planned to handle the transition. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, the head of Mr. Trump’s transition team, represented the Trump campaign, while Ken Salazar, a former interior secretary under Mr. Obama, represented the Clinton campaign. Mr. Salazar is the chairman of what the campaign calls the Clinton-Kaine Transition Project. Neither campaign is eager to discuss the process in detail for fear of looking presumptuous." [New York Times]
  • Speaking of journalists, regular press conferences are an essential part of the accountability we expect of the President of the United States and the presidential candidates who aspire to the highest office in the country. Sitting down for hundreds of interviews, including in-depth interviews with national reporters on the campaign trail, can and does inform voters about a candidate's views but it is not a replacement. [NPR News]
  • If a candidate for president has no experience in public service, his or her managerial record in industry is relevant to voters. [Politico]
  • Trump campaign CEO Steven Bannon is a registered voter at a vacant Florida home. [Guardian]
  • Jonah Goldberg argues that access to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for Clinton Foundations was itself the favor afforded to them. [National Review]
  • That's an argument that good government groups are coalescing around, as demonstrated by Jeff Stein's reporting yesterday: "the heart of their complaint was that the foundation’s contributors appear to have gained a greater ability to make their voices heard by Clinton’s State Department by virtue of donating to her husband’s private foundation.

    This is why they see the new email disclosures as such a big deal. Talking with top government officials obviously isn’t the same as getting them to do your bidding, but doing so can help structure how they think, whom they turn to for advice, and, ultimately, what they decide to do. And the emails at least strongly suggest that foundation donors had a better opportunity to mold the secretary of state’s worldview than they would have otherwise." [Vox]

NATIONAL

  • Carol Mullins, the associate commissioner for the Office of Technology and Survey Processing at the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- the folks who bring you those jobs and unemployment numbers that business reporters cite every couple of weeks -- is modernizing and consolidating its technology infrastructure, reports Jason Miller for WFED. Of note: an Application Programming Interface (API) and a data finder:
    “We are putting more of our data out there on the BLS public website for whoever wants to use it. The initiatives that have come out recently really haven’t changed our approach. The commissioner is very keen on maximizing the data that is out there and making it easy and available for people to use. We offer it in multiple different formats,” she said. “We’ve always been an organization full of data geeks and data nerds so the recent push to put more data out there and make it accessible is really just welcoming more organizations and agencies into the world that we’ve been in for some time."
  • The U.S. Census Bureau's CitySDK and Department of Commerce Data Service’s Commerce Data Usability Project are among finalists in the Open Data category of Government Computer News' Dig IT Awards. [GCN]
  • A new report from the Center for New American Security recommends that the Department of Defense invest more in open source software. Good idea! [CNAS]
  • Transparency advocacy groups -- including Sunlight -- are asking Congress to nix proposed exemptions for said Department of Defense. Bad idea! [Federal News Radio]

State and local

  • Wisconsin's high court ruled that judges may take into account algorithms that predict how likely offenders are to commit crimes in the future when they rule on sentencing. Given the demonstrated bias in such algorithms, this is a canonical  example of data of public sector software that should be rigorously tested and audited. [Wall Street Journal]
  • Maine Governor Paul LePage left an obscenity laced voice mail on a state representative's voice mail and asked him to make it public. Rep. Drew Gattine obliged. [Porland Press Herald]
  • Here's 5 country technology leadership examples that the editors of StateTech Magazine think are worth following. We'll circle back in a year and see where they are. [StateTech]
  • Apparently dealing with reporters making Freedom of Information requests for over a decade is excellent preparation for being a therapist. [DNA Info]
  • Thanks to StateScoop for reporting on tomorrow's big transcontinental open data event!
    A trio of open data advocacy groups are banding together to lead a volunteer effort aimed at creating a comprehensive list of all of the government databases maintained by California’s localities.The Data Foundation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation are teaming up to hold the “Great California Database Hunt” on Saturday, coordinating a daylong campaign of volunteers around the country to sift through the inventories of enterprise systems that each local government agency in the state maintains.

INTERNATIONAL

CrimeRadar_and_The_CrimeRadar_Crime-Forecasting_Tool_Maps__Pre-Crime__in_Rio_-_CityLab
  • In Rio de Janiero, the Igarapé Institute is launching CrimeRadar, an online "a map-based application that uses open data to track incidences of crime." [CityLab]
  • An industry group in Australia that represents startups recommended that banks open up their customer data through APIs, enabling more competition and economic growth. Australia's banks are resisting that idea. [Australia Financial Review]
  • Here's an interesting idea for QR codes: a way to convey patient history in emergency rooms. [QR CodePress]
  • A new report by the Centre for Innovation Policy and Governance in Indonesia found a lack of data management skills,  cooperation by officials and public awareness are holding bacjk Jakarta’s open data initiatives. [GovInsider]
  • Here's the Open Government Partnership's roundup of open government in the news over the past week. [OGP]

EVENTS

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We want to find and share the most important stories about open government around the world from the past 24 hours here. To do that, we'll need YOUR help. Please send your tips and feedback at [email protected] If you would like suggest an event, email us by 7 a.m. on the Monday prior to the event.

Aug 26, 2016

On Tuesday, the Sunlight Foundation joined representatives from eight other open government advocacy organizations and more than a dozen federal agencies in Washington at the National Archives for a series of lightning talks focused on the next round of open government plans. As we highlighted in July, long-awaited White House guidance set a deadline of Sept. 16, 2016, for agencies to answer a series of questions about their progress since President Barack Obama issued his Open Government Directive and publish the next plans mandated by his 2009 executive order. What we heard at the National Archives on Tuesday inspired both hope and concern.

For instance, the Department of Homeland Security touted an eFOIA app for iOS and Android launched last July that was developed with no clear demand. In the year since, it's been downloaded a total of 2,316 times since launch, with an average of five uses per month to submit a FOIA, and 137 uses to check the status of a request. For context, DHS received over 281,000 FOIA requests in fiscal year 2015. The agency effectively denied Mike Morisy's FOIA request for evidence of user-testing and the contract behind it.

The U.S. Trade Representative pitched Trade Promotion Authority as its flagship open government initiative and will "develop public engagement guidelines on public access to information regarding negotiations." It was good to see them at the National Archives talking about open government, but it's worth noting that the /open page for the U.S. Trade Representative currently is empty. That's right — no plan, no links, no contact information. We hope it will get a draft plan up for consultation as soon as possible and tell us more about plans for transparency and what they learned from using Medium to share the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal.

Similarly, while it's good to hear the continued focus on the proposed "release to one, release to all" FOIA policy from the Office of Information Policy, we hope that it will dream a bit bigger than a "self-assessment toolkit" for agencies to use on FOIA. We suggest surveying FOIA requestors, disclose their feedback and use it for improvement. We'd also like to see Sunlight's recommendations for the Justice Department's next open government plan incorporated, particularly with respect to the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Jose Muñoz presents on the National Science Foundation's 2016 Open Government Plan at the National Archives

Jose Muñoz presents on the National Science Foundation's 2016 Open Government Plan at the National Archives

Other agency representatives, from the State Department to NASA to the National Archives and Records Administration, made explicit connections between open government and their mission that were critical, going beyond using technology and initiatives to ground the work in transparency, accountability, collaboration and increased public knowledge.

"We're moving from being gatekeepers of our records to gardeners," said Meredith Steward, a management and program analyst at the Office of Innovation at NARA, exploring how the nation's record-keeper was using online platforms to digitize and curate information with the public's assistance.

"Any publications that came from National Science Foundation funding from 2016 on will be publicly accessible," said Jose Muñoz, commenting on the open access policy mandated by the White House's 2013 directive to agencies to increase access to federally funded scientific research online.

The Office of the Director for National Intelligence told us to expect a unified open government plan in "the next couple of weeks."

The Peace Corps is setting a notable high bar in its plan: to reduce and ultimately eliminate the FOIA backlog. While we're glad that the open government working group experimented with lightning talks and created an opportunity for advocates and federal open government leads to mingle, we're disappointed that there was no audio or video record of the presentations, particularly given the location within the National Archives "Innovation Lab."

Slide of 2016 Peace Corps Open Government Plan
A slide of the 2016 Peace Corps Open Government Plan

You can view Sunlight's presentation and download (PDF) all of the slides from the talks through the White House's open government discussion group, but in every case you'll miss out on what the presenters shared verbally.

For instance, the Project on Government Oversight's Sean Moulton only shared a title slide, which means his useful recommendations on the Freedom of Information Act, federal spending data and encouragement to reach higher for agency "flagship" initiatives were only for the benefit of those people present. The slides of other presenters provide more detail, as with the Union of Concerned Scientists' focus on proactive disclosure in science-based rulemaking, Government Accountability Project's highlight of whistleblower protections, OpenTheGov.org's recommendation to tie federal grants from the Justice Department to adoption of bodycam policies, or the Data Coalition's presentation on open data and the DATA Act.

Chalk this one up as a missed opportunity to inform a deeply skeptical public of the dedication of public servants who deserve recognition for their work in the trenches. We hope that all of the presenters, inside and outside of government, will post their slides, share what they're working on using their websites and social media platforms, and invite feedback.

As the United States prepares for a transition between presidential administrations, these plans represent one of the important mechanisms for baking open government further into how our administration works. The State Department, the Social Security Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and the National Archives have already asked for feedback on their open government plans. We look forward to seeing what the other agencies commit to working on.

Aug 26, 2016

Comic of bookie in Las Vegas
The Justice Department's FOIbles comic book series (Photo credit: Vol II, No 2, Winter 1981. Jon Enten/Memory Hole)

On a few occasions in the past couple of months, I have heard the refrain repeated that the Obama administration has a 91 percent disclosure rate for responses under the Freedom of Information Act. Melanie Pustay, the director of the Office of Information Policy at the Justice Department, used that figure at a Columbia conference in New York in June. Shaun Donovan, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, recited it at the FOIA Advisory Committee meeting last month.

I was curious about that percentage since it sounded extremely – actually unbelievably – high to me. Professor Peter Strauss also questioned the number during the Columbia conference. I asked a colleague who is adept at data crunching to go on FOIA.gov and see if he could figure out how you reached that number. He was able to identify the relevant FOIA data and incorporated it into the spreadsheet below.

If you include full and partial releases as constituting the total release rate, the ratio for all agencies in FY 2015 is 90.6 percent. That is likely where you are getting the 91 percent figure. That total release rate is not included as part of the FOIA data, but it has been added to the spreadsheet as the last column (highlighted in blue) by adding the released in full and released in part ratios.

If you look at the rates separately, for all agencies in FY 2015, the released in full ratio is 51.84 percent and the released in part ratio is 38.76 percent. We’ve inserted those numbers at the bottom of the spreadsheet where the total numbers for all agencies are calculated.

Two comments are in order.

First, my experience has been that including released in part in the overall “disclosure rate” is likely to be very deceptive. In one recent example from the Department of Education, the agency “released” 200 pages of documents to a FOIA requester, only two of which were not totally redacted, and those two were correspondence from the requester. This, of course, would be counted as “released” under the 91 percent tally, but not in my universe.

Second, including the Department of Homeland Security in the calculus biases the total. Persons involved in immigration proceedings have no way to obtain case files except through FOIA/PA, and those documents are routinely released. The DHS system is a good candidate for overhaul to get FOIA out of the process completely, but that’s for another day.

While I am a strong supporter of the Obama administration’s transparency efforts and initiatives in general, I believe it is misleading to repeat the 91 percent number in extolling the administration’s record. Please share this with colleagues who speak and write on FOIA performance so that their assessments can perhaps be more nuanced and meaningful.

Aug 26, 2016

Bernie Sanders speaking at a town meeting in Phoenix, Ariz. (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Bernie Sanders is back — kind of. A new group, Our Revolution, launched this week to continue the movement that his campaign started by raising and spending money to support “candidates in lockstep with Sanders' ideals.” But it’s disappointing many who agreed with Sanders’ call for getting money out of politics because as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, the group would not be required to disclose its donors.

Our Revolution’s issues page has a section devoted to “Big Money in Politics,” which decries super PACs and calls for “legislation to require wealthy individuals and corporations who make large campaign contributions to disclose where their money is going.” The page contains much of the same language that the money in politics issue page on Sanders’ campaign site did. Throughout the campaign, Sanders made campaign finance a key part of his platform, calling repeatedly for a repeal of Citizens United.

A 501(c)(4) is technically a “social-welfare organization,” and can receive unlimited, undisclosed contributions. It can spend money on elections, providing it isn’t the group’s “primary purpose,” which is usually interpreted to mean that the group can’t spend more than 50 percent of its funds on elections (but some do, and get away with it). Our Revolution will support “seven ballot initiatives and more than 100 candidates,” according to Sanders.

Kenneth Gross, a political lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, told ABC News that rules preventing partisan activity can be skirted: “It’s not unusual for a 501(c)(4) to engage in partisan activities before the election, and then they can even it out with nonpartisan activity after the election.”

Our Revolution’s launch has been rocky. The New York Times reported that eight of the initial staff of 15 have resigned following the appointment of Jeff Weaver, who was in charge of Sanders’ presidential campaign, to run the group. The former organizing director, Claire Sandberg, specifically cited her fear that the group would “betray its core purpose by accepting money from billionaires and not remaining grassroots-funded and plowing that billionaire cash into TV instead of investing it in building a genuine movement.”

Weaver has pushed back against concerns that they would rely on wealthy donors, telling The Washington Post, “There’s no reaching out to the Koch Brothers or ExxonMobil. The truth of the matter is we’re going to rely primarily on small donations.”

But without releasing the identities of contributors, it’s hard for the public to know whether that really is true. A group that decries the influence of money in politics should know that donor disclosure matters. Even as a 501(c)(4), Our Revolution could set an example for other nonprofits that spend on elections and choose to reveal this crucial information. Without doing that, it’s just another dark money group.

Aug 25, 2016

President Obama uses virtual reality goggles in the White House
[President Obama uses virtual reality goggles in the White House to look at Yellowstone National Park. Feel free to send us your caption ideas! Photo Credit: Pete Souza]

SECRET AGENTS, MAN. Melissa Yeager digs into how the federal government oversees the influence of foreign government in the United States: "Given the renewed attention to the role influence from foreign governments has allegedly had on this year’s presidential election cycle, you may have heard pundits talk about FARA, or the Foreign Agents Registration Act. There’s likely to be more debate in the coming weeks about who should have and who did register with FARA. So, what the heck is FARA?! Glad you asked." [READ MORE]

NO WAY. The Sunlight Foundation has opposed attempts to use the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) as a vehicle for weakening the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) before, but we're now calling attention to one of the most ridiculous proposals we've seen in recent history: an exemption from FOIA for an entire federal agency. The version of the NDAA (S.2943), the mammoth spending bill that funds the Department of Defense that the Senate passed on June 14, included a section which provided for an "exemption of information on military tactics, techniques, and procedures from release under Freedom of Information Act." The text of the bill that passed the House on July 7 did not have Section 1054.

In June, Sunlight joined a broad coalition denouncing the FOIA carve-out in the NDAA then and urged Senate leadership to strike the toxic amendment from the bill. As the House and Senate prepare to reconvene in September and dig in to reconcile the differences between the bills this fall, we join dozens of other good government advocates calling on Congress to protect FOIA. [READ MORE]

CAMPAIGN 2016

  • Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, called on Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to release his tax returns and medical records. [CNN]
  • Politifact examined an assertion that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton "abided by the ethics agreement" and memorandum of understanding between the Obama administration and the Clinton Foundation while she was at the State Department and rated it mostly false.
    "Experts told us emails between Clinton aides and a foundation aide may not have been prohibited by the specific terms of the ethics pledges. But they demonstrate a blurring of the lines between official government business and Clinton’s personal connections — breaking the firewall Clinton agreed to preserve. The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression." ....Granholm is right that neither agreement prohibits aides facilitating meetings or taking job recommendations, but that's only technically accurate because terms of the agreement were pretty specific to begin with, said John Wonderlich, the director of the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation.

    "The letter of the memorandum of understanding is not the standard by which they’re being judged," Wonderlich said. "By trying to use that as a defense, that just highlights the deficiencies of the memorandum of understanding."[Politifact]

  • Amid renewed questions surrounding the Clinton Foundation, the Wall Street Journal reports that while the Foundation plans to seize corporate and foreign funding, the Clinton Health Access Initiative may continue to accept such donations. [WSJ]
  • As we all work to make sense of this election year, it's worth noting that conspiracies about a presidential candidate and a presidential candidate amplifying conspiracies aren't the same thing. Check your sources before you share that story! [AP]

NATIONAL

  • Federated identity...lives? "The National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC) announced six new multi-year pilots granting organizations ore than $15.5 million to conquer different issues with digital identities. The focus of this year’s NSTIC winners is on secure online access to state and local services with another partnering with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for trusted identities in health care. The NSTIC pilots includes 24 projects and more than 150 total partners across 26 states and D.C." [SecureID News]

State and local

  • The New York Police Department (NYPD) has stopped disclosing records of disciplinary actions with the public. As New York City's public advocate, Bill de Blasio released a report that gave the NYPD failing grades for how it disclosed information to the public. As Mayor of New York, he needs to act to ensure that the NYPD is accountable to the public it serves. [NY Daily News]
  • Austin, Texas now publishes datasets for traffic stops, arrests, resistance to arrests and officer-involved shootings. [Austin, Texas]
  • The Securities and Exchange Commission censured 71 governments in 45 states for failing to disclose certain financial info on bonds. [Governing]

INTERNATIONAL

  • New research suggests that open government reforms that reduce corruption must also focus on service delivery. [DemocracySpot]
  • Speaking of which, national open government action plans would all benefit from focusing on beneficial ownership, contracting transparency and commitments to collect and release more environmental data. [National Resources Governance Institute]

EVENTS

Tired of your boss/friend/intern/uncle forwarding you this email every morning? You can sign up here and have it delivered direct to your inbox! You can follow the progress of relevant bills, court cases, and regulations using Scout.

We want to find and share the most important stories about open government around the world from the past 24 hours here. To do that, we'll need YOUR help. Please send your tips and feedback at [email protected] If you would like suggest an event, email us by 7 a.m. on the Monday prior to the event.

Aug 25, 2016

Pentagon
The Pentagon, which houses the Department of Defense. (Photo credit: David B. Gleason via Flickr)

The Sunlight Foundation has opposed attempts to use the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) as a vehicle for weakening the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) before, but we're now calling attention to one of the most ridiculous proposals we've seen in recent history: an exemption from FOIA for an entire federal agency.

The version of the NDAA (S.2943), the mammoth spending bill that funds the Department of Defense, that the Senate passed on June 14 included a section which provided for an "exemption of information on military tactics, techniques, and procedures from release under Freedom of Information Act." The text of the bill that passed the U.S. House on July 7 did not have Section 1054.

In June, Sunlight joined a broad coalition denouncing the FOIA carve-out in the NDAA then and urged Senate leadership to strike the toxic amendment from the bill. As the House and Senate prepare to reconvene in September and dig in to reconcile the differences between the bills this fall, we join dozens of other good government advocates calling on Congress to protect FOIA.

The timing of this effort by the Defense Department to carve out a wholesale exemption for military doctrine this spring is particularly egregious, in the context of efforts to reform the FOIA. While we celebrated the passage of FOIA reform in Congress in June, this provision was advancing in parallel. As Steven Aftergood reported at the National Security Archive, a proposed amendment to FOIA was part of legislative proposals that the Department of Defense sent to Congress in March.

This summer, we learned through the Department of Defense's inspector general that the Pentagon's FOIA policies need improvement, not an outright blanket exemption. The reformed FOIA already provides numerous exemptions for national security, deliberations and privacy that the military can and does use.

Given how FOIA has been used to document waste, fraud and misconduct at the Pentagon over the decades, passing such an exemption would be a huge mistake for congressional oversight and public knowledge in general.

For instance, in April 2016 the nonprofit advocacy group Protect Our Defenders used the FOIA to obtain internal documents that showed how the Department of Defense had misled Congress about how the Pentagon handles sexual misconduct allegations.

In 2014, a FOIA request provided the data that enabled Dave Phillips, a reporter at The Colorado Springs Gazette, to report “Other than Honorable,” a series that documented a pattern of the U.S. Army discharged soldiers who had been traumatized and injured soldiers for misconduct that won the Pulitzer Prize.

That same year, Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock used FOIA to document 400 large military drone crashes for the paper's investigation of When Drones Fall from the Sky.”

If you dig into the Sunshine in Government Initiative's FOIA Files, you can find many more examples of how FOIA held the Department of Defense accountable, like a 2006 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer that showed the Pentagon ignored a whistleblower who documented 135 instances of higher prices in contracts that added up to $200 million dollars in wasteful spending.

If you've reported on or read a story about the Defense Department that relied upon documents or data obtained from FOIA, please let us know in the comments.

And, if this is an issue that matters to you, we urge you to contact the chairpersons and ranking members of the Committees on Armed Services and let them know that the Pentagon should not be exempted from one of the nation's most important transparency and accountability laws. You can Email Congress using our tool, call the Senate at (202) 224-3871 or the House at (202) 225-4151 or write to:

Aug 25, 2016

International Currency
FARA can help detect foreign influence on American politics. (Photo credit: epSos.de/Wikimedia Commons)

Before his resignation on Friday, news stories and questions have swirled about Donald Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his involvement with pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. What was his role? Was he paid? Who does he have ties to? Was he disclosing what he needed to under U.S. law?

Given the renewed attention to the role influence from foreign governments has allegedly had on this year’s presidential election cycle, you may have heard pundits talk about FARA, or the Foreign Agents Registration Act. There’s likely to be more debate in the coming weeks about who should have and who did register with FARA.

So, what the heck is FARA?! Glad you asked.

In 1938, Congress passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires those working on behalf of a foreign government or a quasi-government agency to disclose information about their activities. Congress passed the act as a response to the Nazi propaganda that was entering the United States during World War II, and was supposed to give members of Congress and the American people more knowledge about foreign interests trying to influence U.S. politics.

A lot of people compare it to lobbying disclosure, but that may not be an “apples to apples” comparison as it includes many other “influence” activities, like public relations and tourism.  Congress believed that if you were a foreign actor in the U.S., your disclosure should be deeper and broader; this was not just a lobbying disclosure act, but a counter-espionage provision of the law meant to provide transparency to areas of potential foreign influence.

FARA requires that someone register with the Department of Justice within 10 days of agreeing to be an agent. Then that individual must file reports every six months detailing their activities.

Some of the things they have to disclose:

  • The name of the foreign government
  • Whom they have contacted, including government officials, members of Congress, their staff and also members of the media
  • What issues they discussed
  • How much money they received for that activity
  • Copies of any informational items (formerly called propaganda) distributed; this can include posters, press releases, ads, op-eds and more
  • Any campaign contributions made by the registered individual

Some of unique parts of FARA compared to the Lobbying Disclosure Act:

  • There is no monetary threshold to FARA, so an agent must register even if that person isn't paid at all
  • FARA office collects fees for registering
  • FARA makes reports to Congress every six months
  • The FARA office can make on-site inspections of records of those registered under the act

While we can glean a lot of information from these reports, it’s important to know there are several categories of people exempted as well. Those include:

  • Diplomats and officials of foreign governments and their staffs (if recognized by the State Department)
  • Activities purely commercial in nature
  • Activities that are related to religious, scholastic, academic, scientific or the fine arts
  • Sometimes collecting funds used for medical aid, food or clothing to relieve human suffering
  • Lawyers representing foreign principals in court so long as they are not influencing policy
  • Agents registered under the Lobbying Disclosure Act

Second, the documents are only as good as the integrity of the person filling them out. Sometimes those are handwritten or incomplete. Sometimes people don’t register at all.

The Department of Justice provides the filings online, but they are in PDF format and thus are not easy to sort or search. That’s why from 2008 to 2013, the Sunlight Foundation undertook a project designed to make those easier to access. Though you can see archived information online — like a feed of arm sales and new registrants — there is still a lot of information that's only available physically at the office, primarily the informational items. Sunlight would love to see this information stored in a machine readable format and available to users online.

Enforcing FARA

The Department of Justice has several avenues of enforcement. The statute has both civil and criminal prosecution avenues. When the FARA Unit discovers potential violations of the act, it first sends a letter of inquiry to the individual seeking more information. But, the Department of Justice lacks authority to inspect the records of those whom they believe should be registered, but haven’t. They only have the authority to perform site inspections if the person has already registered under the law.

A 2008 Government Accountability Office report pointed out that congressional action was needed to give the Justice Department this authority. The agency also pointed this out in a 2015 reply to an inquiry by Sen. Grassley, R-Iowa, regarding enforcement of FARA. Grassley’s office made the inquiry following news stories questioning the activities of Clinton ally Sidney Blumenthal.

The agency expressed interest in working with Congress to change the part of the law restricting them from inspecting the records of those who had not registered under FARA. Sunlight supports this change, but so far, that has not happened. (There are a number of additional ways that FARA can be improved, such as making forms electronically filed in a searchable, sortable online database. Check out Sunlight's full list of FARA recommendations here.)

But we did get an idea of what the Justice Department has done in terms of enforcement of the law. One of the challenges of FARA is that the Justice Department has to show “willful” violation of the law. It can sometimes be hard to prove that someone intentionally broke the law; individuals can claim they weren't aware of FARA rules in the first place.

When responding to Grassley last year, the Justice Department reported that in the past 10 years:  

  • It has sent 130 letters of inquiry
  • Of those letters sent, the department found 38 had obligation to registered under FARA
  • The FARA Unit has conducted 101 inspections since 2005
  • FARA has charged four criminal cases

The most recent criminal prosecution happened in 2014. Prince Asiel Ben Israel received a seven month prison sentence after he pleaded guilty to not reporting his activity while trying to persuade U.S. government officials to lift sanctions on Zimbabwean government officials.

The Justice Department’s FARA office also told Grassley that the agency finds leads for investigations by reading reports in media outlets — as is the case with Manafort's involvement in Ukraine. We reached out to the Justice Department to ask if it is investigating the situation involving Manafort. Spokesman Marc Raimondi told us by email, “While we would never discuss a specific case beyond what is available on the public FARA website, in general FARA does not authorize the government to inspect records of those not registered under the Act.”

In response to our questions, Raimondi also told us, “The Department is considering legislation that would remedy the government’s current inability to compel the production of records from potential and current registrants.”

But there may be more clarity on FARA's future soon. As Demand Progress' Daniel Schuman pointed out, a report from the Justice Department's inspector general due to come out in the next couple months will examine “the administration and enforcement of” FARA in depth. This report could potentially bring about positive changes in the law regarding data quality, oversight capabilities and more.

Regardless of Manafort's situation and the law's potential limitations, FARA is a key tool for monitoring the ways foreign entities influence policy and opinions in the United States. If you'd like to dig into FARA data yourself, check out Sunlight's Foreign Influence Explorer. And for even more ways to explore FARA, check out the excellent Foreign Influence Database from our allies at the Project on Government Oversight!

Aug 24, 2016

TRANSPARENCY AT CENTER STAGE: Both major party presidential nominees are being criticized across the political spectrum for failing to be open and transparent with voters. Unfortunately, "several of the norms we have for what the public should know are being violated," says Sunlight's interim executive director, John Wonderlich [CBS News]

PREVENTING THE NEXT WATERGATE: How can the presidential candidates grappling with transparency issues on the trail stop corruption before it begins if they're elected? Start now, recommends Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. Brian recommends embedding the principles of open government into their campaigns, disclosing information relevant voters and supporting accountability and whistleblowing in personnel matters. Like POGO, we don't endorse candidates, but we definitely endorse Brian's recommendations.[POGO]

LET THE PRESS IN: Here's something else the campaigns could do: provide media access to fundraisers so that the public can hear what the candidates are telling donors.“You’re basically sowing the seeds of secrecy and making people suspicious about what is happening,” Sunlight's Melissa Yeager told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s absolutely possible that they’re doing everything right, but we have no way of knowing.” [WSJ]

THE BLACK HOLE OF INTERNET ADS: Analyzing the latest campaign finance reports filed by the Trump campaign, Melissa Yeager focused on the largest expense: $18 million on “digital and online advertising," with nearly half of that ($8.4 million) spent on Giles Parscale Inc. The trouble is that "we don’t know how much actually went to design or to ad placement." She writes:

With television ads, we can see the placements in Federal Communications Commission filings. We know when ads run, how many were purchased and how much they cost. But with digital ads, we don’t know very much at all. The Federal Election Commission has said the internet expenses only need to be reported if they are placed for a fee on another website. (We’ve previously written about how this Internet blind spot could be troubling for disclosure.)
Until the Federal Election Commission and Congress mandate more specific, itemized disclosures of online spending, it's going to be up to the public to try to suss out what's happening. On that count, the New York Times has built a Web browser plugin, "AdTrack," that enables readers to share the ads they're seeing on Facebook. This effort is similar to ProPublica's request to help them track how politicians target them in email, which they published in their "Message Machine" in 2012. Please participate!

CAMPAIGN 2016

  • The latest batch of emails released for public scrutiny sheds more sunlight on the relationship between Clinton Foundation donors and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her aides while she was in office from 2009 to 2013. [Christian Science Monitor]
  • David Sirota broke down what we now know due to media investigations of the Clinton Foundation to date. [IB Times]
  • What's missing? Hard evidence of "quid pro quo" corruption, as defined by the Supreme Court, between donations to the Clinton Foundation and actions taken by the Secretary in office. Implications otherwise, based upon the available evidence, are "pure fiction," argue Michael Cohen.[Boston Globe]
  • Matthew Yglesias, who critiqued an Associated Press' investigation that half of the 158 people whom State Department calendars showed Clinton had met with had ties to the Clinton Foundation, largely agreed with Cohen's conclusion. [Vox]
  • While the AP story doesn't provide evidence of wrongdoing, nor measure all of the meetings Clinton had as Secretary of State, it offers insight into judgment. Such transparency enables the public to understand a candidate's record. Accountability leads to commitments to improve. What is demonstrable in the emails is that donors to the Clinton Foundation had greater access to Clinton and her aide Huma Abedin. However, this seemingly didn't result in additional favors for contributors, and their requests were denied in some cases. [USA Today]
  • The continued focus on the role of the Foundation, along with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's ties to Ukraine, has made foreign influence a hot topic on the campaign trail. [POGO]
  • Former President Bill Clinton has announced that the Clinton Foundation will shrink considerably should his wife be elected President, with only his daughter Chelsea remaining on the board. According to Buzzfeed News, "planning began in February to find outside organizations that can absorb much of the foundation’s work in order resolve potential conflicts of interest." [NPR News]
  • Government watchdogs, including us, are generally applauding the Clinton Foundation's shift, but are wondering why it took so long. Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen, told Salon that scaling back operations after the election “certainly helps, and it’s long overdue, but it does come too late.” The answer to the ethics challenges here is for the campaign and a Clinton administration to be more open and transparent. As Holman suggested to Salon, the Office of Government Ethics “could easily run through the donor lists to the foundation, identify the potential conflicts of interests of any administration actions and require, or ask for full disclosure of the process.”   [Salon]
  • According to FEC filings, the Trump campaign has spent $1.1 million on legal fees to date – with $762,000 in July alone – and it's not clear why. "Whatever the reason for the campaign's lavish on lawyers, the flurry of legal bills is striking in the context of Trump's overall spending when compared with other recent campaigns. The Trump campaign has spent a total of $89.5 million. Of that, $1.1 million has gone toward legal fees. That's how much the Mitt Romney presidential campaign spent on legal fees over the course of the entire 2012 election, while spending $483 million overall on Romney's losing bid." [Mother Jones]
  • 20 years ago, all of the major candidates for president took federal matching funds to use in their campaigns. Today, only Green Party nominee Jill Stein does. According to Dave Weigel, the fund Congress established to provide public financing now has $314 million in reserve. As he notes, taking public financing means candidates have to abide by a spending cap. [Washington Post]

NATIONAL

  • How does the federal ombudsman for the Freedom of Information Act at the Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives model transparency? Proactively disclose, disclose, disclose. You can find the office's Annual Reports, Director’s Calendar, Congressional Testimony, OGIS Activities Calendar, Final Response Letters to CustomersStatements and Executive Correspondence and Mediation Program Performance Statistics on its website. [The FOIA Ombudsman]
  • According to anonymous US officials quoted by CNN, the FBI is investigating a series of attempted hacks targeting reporters at the New York Times and other news organizations by hackers "thought to be working for Russian intelligence."  [NBC News]
    The intrusions, detected in recent months, are under investigation by the FBI and other US security agencies. Investigators so far believe that Russian intelligence is likely behind the attacks and that Russian hackers are targeting news organizations as part of a broader series of hacks that also have focused on Democratic Party organizations, the officials said.

    The Times said email services for employees are outsourced to Google. CNN requested comment from Google but didn't receive comment. The FBI declined to comment. Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said the company had seen "no evidence" that any breaches had occurred of the Times's internal systems. CNN's report didn't say that the Times internal systems were breached, but that reporters were targeted.

  • Facebook says its suspension of two libertarian group pages on was an error. [Buzzfeed]
  • An upcoming court case threatens whistleblower protections, warns the Project on Government Oversight. [POGO]
  • Why does that matter? Consider, for instance, how whistleblowers exposed contractors who sold defective helmets to the Defense Department. [GovExec]
  • Speaking of contractors, the Obama Administration has issued final guidance for the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order requiring additional compliance and transparency through disclosure. [Federal News Radio]

State and local

  • A bill backed by Planned Parenthood in California that would make it a crime to record a confidential conversation with a health provider is close to passage. Free speech advocates are raising constitutional concerns about what it would mean for publishers and journalists. It's already illegal to intentionally eavesdrop in California. You can't record a private conversation in person or on the phone without the consent of both parties in California. A.B. 1671 goes further by criminalizing the distribution of a specific kind of eavesdropping – secret videos, like the ones recorded at Planned Parenthood. Here's the key section of the bill:
    "Section 632.01 is added to the Penal Code, to read: (a) (1)A person who violates subdivision (a) of Section 632 shall be punished pursuant to subdivision (c) (b) if the person intentionally discloses or distributes, in any manner, in any forum, including, but not limited to, Internet Web sites and social media, or for any purpose, the contents of a confidential communication with a health care provider that is obtained by that person in violation of subdivision (a) of Section 632. For purposes of this subdivision, “social media” means an electronic service or account, or electronic content, including, but not limited to, videos or still photographs, blogs, video blogs, podcasts, instant and text messages, email, online services or accounts, or Internet Web site profiles or locations."
    While we share the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation's concern about the precedent of criminalizing online distribution of materials from whistleblowers, confidential communications with health providers are some of the most private matters imaginable. They merit constitutional protections from disclosure. We hope California's legislature protects speech and avoids adding liability while upholding important privacy principles. [Courthouse News]
  • A new effort to improve Oregon's public records reform law is getting mixed reviews because it leaves in place hundreds of exemptions that enable state government to levy high fees for the public. [Bend Bulletin]
    “In an ideal world, members of the public should be able to gain access to public records at no cost at all,” said Charlie Hinkle, a retired partner at the Portland law firm Stoel Rives who specializes in public records law. “That is a core function of government, to act in the open, and therefore it is really a contradiction in terms to say we’re going to offer it in the open only if you pay us to do it.” … Sean Moulton, open government program manager at the Project on Government Oversight, said state and federal agencies can use loopholes or high fees allowed in open government laws to skirt transparency that could otherwise improve their performance.“When you uncover mismanagement, wasted resources, a program that just didn’t deliver or something even worse … that is understandably embarrassing for an agency,” Moulton said. “But uncovering those problems is the first step in closing loopholes, addressing weaknesses in agencies and making sure they perform better in the long term.”
  • Here's a look at how Cincinnati's open data releases are helping to spark collaboration between police and community groups. [FoxTrot Code]
  • Gerrymandering has enabled politicians to choose their electorates by drawing convoluted district maps. Can the state save American democracy? [New York Times]
  • Nextdoor is rolling out changes to its private social network that the company hopes will mitigate the racial profiling issues that have bedeviled the platform. [Buzzfeed]

INTERNATIONAL

  • The Open Government Partnership is convening "strategy dialogues" to discuss the next phase of its work, which the initiative wants to be "co-created" around the world. [OGP]
  • OGP's weekly roundup of world news related to open government is a useful snapshot of the space. [OGP]
  • New Zealand is seeking feedback on its next national action plan for open government. [OGPNZ]
  • Criminals and corrupt police have planted evidence on people for centuries. Here's the 21st century version: a highly sophisticated entity planted documents on the computer of Turkish investigative journalist Barış Pehlivan and tried to control the machine remotely. He was subsequently accused of terrorism by Turkey and spent 19 months in jail. [Motherboard]
  • There's failing the public interest balance test for publishing sensitive government data, and then there's this: the Associated Press found that Wikileaks has leaked the personal information of hundreds of people online since last August. "In the past year alone, the radical transparency group has published medical files belonging to scores of ordinary citizens while many hundreds more have had sensitive family, financial or identity records posted to the web. In two particularly egregious cases, WikiLeaks named teenage rape victims." [AP]
  • As Steven Aftergood noted, commenting on the situation, the "publication of information is not always an act of freedom. It can also be an act of aggression or oppression." In 2011, asked about Wikileaks, World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee said that "open government" is data about a country which “is not personally identifiable information about individuals. It does not have privacy issues associated with it. And it does not include military or state secrets.” [Huffington Post]

EVENTS

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