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#162 Getting government records

mp3 #162 How to Get Government Records (mp3 file)

Many government files, whether they contain information about a candidate, a private citizen or a defective toy, are public record.

Under the Freedom of Information act (FOIA) enacted in 1966, the records of federal agencies are presumed public and open to inspection. The records of Congress, the courts and state government are not covered. (Many states, including California, have public record laws that are very similar to the FOIA.) But if you want to see if the FBI has a file on you or review an inspection report on a nursing home certified for Medicare. You can use the FOIA to gain access to the files.

The way it is supposed to work is relatively straightforward and simple. All records are public unless they fall into one of nine exempt categories. You must send your written request to the Freedom of Information office of the agency that has the records you want. Write "Freedom of Information Act Request" on the envelope and at the top of your letter.

If you are not sure which agency might have the files you are seeking, contact the nearest Federal Information Center, which are located in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. The telephone number for the Los Angeles federal information center is 1-800-333-4636.

Your letter need not be elaborate. Simply state that in accordance with the FOIA, you are requesting access to, or copies of, certain documents. Describe the files you want as precisely as possible, so the government agency won't toss it out because they do not understand it or they feel your request is overly broad. You'll probably be charged for search fees and photocopy costs, unless your request is a benefit to the public.

Your request can be denied if the agency believes a specific exemption applies. Ask in your letter that, if your request is denied, the agency explain what exemption applies and why.

The nine exemptions cover national security information, internal agency rules, confidential business information (some of the biggest users of the FOIA are firms checking out the competition), certain interagency communications, personnel, medical and other files containing private information, law enforcement investigatory records, certain records of financial institutions, geological information on oil wells and other material explicitly protected by other laws.

The law requires agencies to respond to your inquiry within 10 days, but most agencies are so backlogged that it will take much longer.

If your request is denied--you'll hear about it in writing. At that time you can send a letter of appeal to the same agency, and your request will be given another look. If it is still denied, then you can take your request to federal court by filing a lawsuit challenging the denial.

Many states, including California, have public records laws that are very similar to the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The California public records act is found in the California government code, sections 6250 to 6267. It covers all state, county, city, school district, and other local public agencies. Many agencies have written guidelines for inspecting their written records and these guidelines are available free of charge. Some types of state and local government records, however, are not legally available for public inspection.

If you want copies of government records, you will be required to pay fees covering the costs of making the copies, or a statutory fee for certain types of records.

Most state and local government agencies do not have a Freedom of Information Act Office for you to contact if you want to inspect their records. You may first make a verbal request to the agency. If you are denied access to the records you want to see, then you should send a written request to the director of the state or local agency, stating that you are making your request under the California Public Records Act. The agency has 10 days after receiving your request to let you know whether or not the records you requested will be made available to you, and its reasons for denying you access to any records.

If a state or local government agency refuses to let you inspect records which you are legally entitled to see, you may petition the superior court in the county where the records are located. If you win in court, the court may require the public agency to pay your court costs and reasonable attorney's fees.

This information is based on a copyrighted article in the Los Angeles Times by attorney Jeffrey S. Klein.

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