2018 Black Hole Award bestowed upon Trump and his administration
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Danielle McLean, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chair, (202) 741- 6247, email@example.com
Anna Gutierrez, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 317-920-4785, firstname.lastname@example.org
INDIANAPOLIS — Each year during Sunshine Week, the Society of Professional Journalists bestows the Black Hole Award upon government institutions or agencies for outright contempt of the public’s right to know. Today, the seventh annual Black Hole Award is given to President Donald Trump and his administration.
In selecting the Trump administration for the "dishonor," members of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee pointed to an Associated Press report this week that documented records set by the Trump administration for failing to provide information sought under the Freedom of Information Act.
"A huge 'congratulations' to the Trump administration for being the first presidential administration to win this prestigious award," said Danielle McLean, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chair. “A true democracy gives free and open access to the very public body it is supposed to serve. The Trump administration has so far done a fantastic job shielding the public from that essential access by censoring and withholding a record number of files requested through the Freedom of Information Act. Saying that, I urge the Trump administration to please stop this practice and start governing for the people."
After analyzing federal reports for eight months in 2017, the Associated Press found that private citizens, journalists and others who sought records under the Freedom of Information Act received files that had been censored or nothing at all in 78 percent of 823,222 requests. That exceeded similar results in every year of the past decade. In about half of the cases where the government provided no records, the government said it could find no information related to the request.
Ironically, the website for the Freedom of Information Act displays this message in large letters: "The basic function of the Freedom of Information Act is to ensure informed citizens, vital to the functioning of a democratic society."
The government did provide everything requested in about one of five cases, the AP said.
The analysis also found the Trump administration set a second record, spending $40.6 million to defend its decisions to withhold requested files.
Legitimate reasons do exist for the government to deny requests for government information. Among the nine exempt areas are privacy concerns, national security and trade secrets.
The SPJ Freedom of Information Committee felt that it was important not to ignore the elephant in the room, but also to address more local issues that have resulted because of a trickle-down effect from the current and prior administrations. This trickle-down effect is evident by the record number of Black Hole Award nominations the FOI committee received this year.
For equally egregious and heinous violations of the public’s right to know, here are the committee’s picks for "Dishonorable Mentions" or runners-up.
Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner’s Office
Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner’s Office is well known for taking its time with Freedom of Information Act requests, often taking over a year to respond.
Because of this, Erik Abderhalden wrote in his nomination letter, "the Illinois Governor's Office is egregious in violation of FOIA law due to their lack of timely response, which is causing great strife to the public seeking the records."
The governor’s office has been sued multiple times (here, here and here) after failing to comply with FOIA, and even went so far as to block a request for Illinois first lady Diana Rauner’s emails.
It has been proven multiple times that Rauner's office is abusing FOIA and keeping secrets. The egregiousness has risen to a level where the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor issued two separate opinions (here and here) stating Rauner’s office has violated FOIA, and asked that it comply by providing the requested records. In their review of FOIA denials, the governor’s office would not even comply with the review process. Gov. Rauner’s office has even failed to comply with the AG’s written opinion(s).
Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services
This government agency routinely sells public data, but refuses to give the basic versions to Reclaim the Records, a not-for-profit group of genealogists, historians, researchers and open government advocates. When the agency finally agreed to turn over the information, it tried to charge Reclaim the Records $1.5 million for it.
The agency also tried to get dirt on the requestor’s organization and repeatedly tried to stonewall the requests. These are just a few of the heinous ways this government agency conspired to blatantly break Sunshine Law and avoid releasing public information.
Washington State Legislature
It was only Gov. Jay Inslee’s veto that prevented the Washington State Legislature from permanently banning access to lawmakers’ past emails, text messages and calendars, as well as past disciplinary proceedings and complaints about lawmakers’ conduct — basically an attempt to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act.
For that reason, the SPJ FOI Committee awarded the Washington State Legislature as a dishonorable mention.
In February, Washington state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 6617. SPJ National President Rebecca Baker, SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee and SPJ Western Washington Pro Chapter urged Gov. Inslee to veto the bill.
"Journalism and open government groups have been calling on state and federal governments to be more open and transparent for years. Yet lawmakers continue these ridiculous attempts to stymie journalists and ignore the First Amendment," Baker said earlier this month. "It’s time for elected officials to do what they were elected to do, do what is right, and be honest and transparent with journalists and the public."
Nominations for the Black Hole Award come from journalists, open-government advocates and the general public.
Previous recipients of the Black Hole Award include the U.S. Virgin Islands Government, U.S. Forest Service, Oklahoma State University, the Georgia, Utah and Wisconsin state legislatures and the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission was last year’s recipient.
The Society of Professional Journalists launched the Black Hole Award to highlight the most heinous violations of the public's right to know. By exposing such abuses, SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee seeks to educate members of the public about their rights and call attention to those who would interfere with openness and transparency.