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FOIA and Open Records best practices

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Human_Paraquat, Jul 29, 2019.

  1. Human_Paraquat

    Human_Paraquat Well-Known Member

    I thought people might benefit from a thread where we compiled some of our best practices for what documents to request and how best to request them. I know the statutes vary from state-to-state, but there are some commonalities that should help everyone.

    Coaching contracts and athletic department budgets are obvious. What information do you request in order to perform, for lack of a better term, "routine maintenance" on a beat?

    A few I thought of:
    *Schedule contracts
    *Receipts for bowl games, NCAA Tournament expenditures, etc.
    *Secondary NCAA violations
    *Flight manifests to track which boosters/others are around said program.

    Imagine someone is starting their first college beat this fall. What do they need to request?

    Also feel free to share your favorite stories of denials/redactions/runarounds.
    JackReacher and Mike Hebert like this.
  2. Dog8Cats

    Dog8Cats Active Member

    Itemized receipts for expenses incurred during the big recruiting weekends

    One of my state's foremost experts on public records once said that personnel records of some employees of public colleges are subject to FOIA requests. I've never attempted to make such a request, but that would be very valuable.

    Cell phone records of coaches when on the road

    Athletic director's emails to the school's biggest boosters

    Coach's/AD's electronic calendar
    Human_Paraquat and Mike Hebert like this.
  3. Bamadog

    Bamadog Well-Known Member

    I'm not in sports any more, but here's my FOIA story:

    I send a request to our county's sheriff's office, asking for incident reports on all of the seizures listed on the state-run civil asset forfeiture database. You've got to have these incident reports because the database gives you precious little information. They tell me that it'll cost $25 per incident report, which is outrageous considering I need 18 of these.

    So I file a complaint with our state's ethics commission and they politely inform the sheriff's office that they should charge no more than 15 cents per page, plus a fee for one of their workers to find the required documents. The sheriff's office backed down and charged the required 15 cents per page, which added up to $8.20. The bad news was they informed me that they only had eight of the requested files and one of them was for a case that involved no seizure of property, so that knocks it down to seven.

    A few weeks later, a city informs me that they want hundreds of dollars for a mayor's travel records. I do a screenshot of the email and send it to them, informing them that I had no problem with taking them to the ethics commission. The surrender came the next day and it cost me $26.40.

    To quote Nick Saban, I made their ass quit.
    Batman and Dog8Cats like this.
  4. inthesuburbs

    inthesuburbs Member

    Context is important. That is, request info not just from the schools you cover, but from their competitors. Not just from one sport at a school, but others as well.

    Public universities and colleges, that is. You can generate a boilerplate public records request letter citing that state's law from Student Press Law Center | Public Records Letter Generator.

    You mention that coaching contracts are obvious. I truly wonder how many reporters request all the contracts or hiring letters from all the D1 sports at the colleges and universities they cover. And if you are covering a sport, then you want the contracts or hiring letters from all the other coaches in the conference for that sport.

    Request them once a year at about the same time. It takes about an hour to look up the contact info for public records requests for every school in a conference, and another half hour per school to crank out a letter listing by name all of the head coaches and assistant coaches.

    Some assistant coaches make more money than the head coaches make at competing schools. (News.)

    The bonuses are particularly variable from school to school: cash bonuses for winning the conference, for making the NCAA tournament, for winning a game in the tournament, etc.

    And tiny bonuses for academic achievement by the players. (News.)

    Also remember that contracts lay out the schedule of earnings. Ask for the actual disbursements (information on a paycheck) from the payroll database, if you want to know how much was paid to a coach. (News.)

    And don't forget that coaches often make money on the side, arranged by the school, such as money from donors, foundations, etc. (News.)

    More context: If you cover a men's sport, ask for the women's coaches, too, and vice versa. (News.)

    So little of this reporting work is done that there is a good opportunity for a sports blogger to post contract information each year for all D1 sports, both men's and women's, linking to the PDFs of the contracts or hiring letters so there is more transparency.
    Dog8Cats likes this.
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