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James Eli Shiffer

Reporter | Editor | Newsroom
phone: 612-673-4116
James Eli Shiffer covers government secrecy and public records, and writes the Full Disclosure column. He has worked as a team leader and reporter at the Star Tribune since 2005, focusing on investigations and the digital transformation of news. Before that, he spent 12 years at The News & Observer in Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina. He's a board member of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information. He's also the author of "The King of Skid Row," a 2016 book from the University of Minnesota Press about a vanished community in Minneapolis.
Recent content from James Eli Shiffer
A trip to Duluth proves City Hall isn't sinking under data requests

A trip to Duluth proves City Hall isn't sinking under data requests

So back in July, when the Duluth city staff presented the idea of charging $35 an hour for any data request that takes more than 15 minutes, I decided to ask: How big a burden are these?
The fuzzy line between dissent and disruption, even for courts

The fuzzy line between dissent and disruption, even for courts

Anyone doubting the power of protest should study the shutdown of the Minneapolis Board of Education meeting on Jan. 12. The board was poised to…
Former police chief's hush clause stymies a needed public debate

Former police chief's hush clause stymies a needed public debate

There's something so Minnesotan about the idea of nondisparagement.

Search for father's birth parents runs into bureaucratic tangle

What's the public interest in hiding a court record created 108 years ago?
Hotel room bust of high-end prostitute leads to $20,000 windfall for Minn. police

Hotel room bust of high-end prostitute leads to $20,000 windfall for Minn. police

Adrienne Chapa was arrested and spent a few days in jail before she went home to Las Vegas. Her bag of $24,425 in cash was here to stay.
How Minnesota law prevents many adoptees from learning about their roots

How Minnesota law prevents many adoptees from learning about their roots

Despite a nationwide movement to open up access to adoption records, Minnesota's laws place the privacy of birth parents ahead of the desire of adoptees to know their origins.

History of gas line accidents in Minnesota since 1998

Before Wednesday’s explosion at Minnehaha Academy, gas distribution lines have experienced at least 41 major accidents in Minnesota since 2004, federal data show. The most…
Archive specialist rescues Minnesota history, page by yellowed page

Archive specialist rescues Minnesota history, page by yellowed page

Charlie Rodgers’ business card carries his bone-dry title: “Government records specialist.” The reality is more like this: Exploring dank basements and forgotten storage areas; opening…
Minnesota veterans of the CIA's 'secret war' seek an honorable burial

Minnesota veterans of the CIA's 'secret war' seek an honorable burial

A Brooklyn Park veteran of the CIA's "secret war" has been stymied by the federal government's refusal to hand over classified documents about its proxy army, or even acknowledge that they exist.

Minnesota voter list is a public record, after all

President Donald Trump’s election fraud commission ignited a bipartisan backlash when it asked states for a list of every registered voter, including birth dates and…
Painful as it could be, some files must be made public

Painful as it could be, some files must be made public

Some fear this case could mark the end of Minnesota's laudable openness about how its law officers investigate crime.

Big ideas for open government fall short at Legislature

Transparency advocates had grand plans for improving public access to government information in Minnesota this legislative session. One proposal would have stopped the mass…

At U.S. State Department, ground rules for official anonymity

WASHINGTON – The weather was sweltering on the sidewalks of the U.S. Capitol last week, so the State Department officials walked outside the massive…
Inside one woman's fight to expose Minn. health care investigations

Inside one woman's fight to expose Minn. health care investigations

Sheila Van Pelt's yearslong campaign underscores the enormous challenges facing everyday citizens in an era when powerful interest groups push laws that ensure greater levels of secrecy.
Growing police tech arsenal watches criminals, citizens

Growing police tech arsenal watches criminals, citizens

Law enforcement agencies have more tools to gather information than ever before. Laws safeguarding that data and guaranteeing public access to it are failing to keep up.
Survivors of CIA's secret airline gather in Twin Cities to reminisce, organize

Survivors of CIA's secret airline gather in Twin Cities to reminisce, organize

Officials still say they were not affiliated with U.S. government during the Vietnam War.
Newspaper's secrecy scoop of 1947 resonates today

Newspaper's secrecy scoop of 1947 resonates today

The headline blared across the front page of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune. Big enough to stop a president: “U.S. CENSORSHIP PLAN REVEALED.” It was…
In Minneapolis, no rush to obtain body cam video

In Minneapolis, no rush to obtain body cam video

Since the city began outfitting each patrol officer with a camera last summer, the police received only 25 requests for information that included body camera video.
Minneapolis scrubs its records to hide site of Super Bowl command center

Minneapolis scrubs its records to hide site of Super Bowl command center

Mpls. scrubs info, leaving public in dark on landlord.

Former NSA executive urges public vigilance against government overreach

NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake said he chose defending the law over loyalty to the agency.
The final cache of secret JFK records set for release this year

The final cache of secret JFK records set for release this year

Documents that show what the government knows about John F. Kennedy's 1963 trip to Dallas have been kept secret for more than 50 years. Now, these records are among the remaining sealed documents about the JFK assassination set for release in coming months.
Inside law enforcement's high-tech toolbox

Inside law enforcement's high-tech toolbox

New technologies are giving law enforcement in Minnesota and across the country broad access to data on criminals and everyday citizens alike.
Public left on the street after White House visitor logs go dark

Public left on the street after White House visitor logs go dark

Last week, the Secret Service banished pedestrians from the south side of the White House after too many unauthorized visitors managed to leap…
Minn. burglar found addresses of victims online before committing crimes

Minn. burglar found addresses of victims online before committing crimes

There are 14 situations in which it is legal to view someone else’s driver’s license and motor vehicle registration data. Finding homes to ransack isn’t…
Project opens the FBI files on the notably dead

Project opens the FBI files on the notably dead

For the past 16 months, when a notable person dies, Parker Higgins sends a letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Each letter is the same, except for the name, and makes the same request: Hand over the FBI file for the deceased.
Growing web of laws keeps Minnesotans in the dark

Growing web of laws keeps Minnesotans in the dark

The state's public records law is riddled with hundreds of exceptions. Local governments and businesses are pushing to keep even more data secret.
Lawmakers propose limiting access to day care enforcement records

Lawmakers propose limiting access to day care enforcement records

Providers want to protect reputations, but families want enforcement data.

Gov. Walker embraces government sunshine, but it's cloudy in Minnesota

Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of open government and the First Amendment, was heralded by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker with a March 8 proclamation…
Minnesota law allows driver's license snoopers to stay in shadows

Minnesota law allows driver's license snoopers to stay in shadows

The snooping into Minnesota driver’s license data became a scandal in 2012. Police officers, sheriff’s deputies and others were using the database to check the…

USDA removes animal welfare records from website

Dogs with sores on their paws and missing fur. Sick rabbits living in a trashy building. A kennel two degrees hotter than the 85-degree legal…

Details about Trump ban detainees are hard to pry loose

Amid the scenes of tearful reunions and airport protests that followed President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order on immigration, so much is still unknown…

Fading voice of an access advocate

When Minnesotans suspect their elected leaders or civil servants are hiding something, they can turn to a tiny state agency for help. The Information Policy…

Minnesota goes after leakers, too

In one of his last acts as president, Barack Obama commuted the sentence of a high-profile government whistleblower and pardoned another. Obama’s actions last…

Minnesota tussles over e-mail, and so does everywhere else

“Is e-mail a public document that needs to be preserved?” That question appears in an April 1994 edition of the Star Tribune. A generation and…
Hennepin County judge: Body-cam footage is off-limits to public

Hennepin County judge: Body-cam footage is off-limits to public

Ivy Bernhardson, the chief judge in Hennepin County, laid down the rules in December on how prosecutors and defense attorneys should handle video footage from…
Feds processing 51 new grape varietals for wine; two are Minnesota made

Feds processing 51 new grape varietals for wine; two are Minnesota made

At least two made-in-Minnesota, cold-weather-tolerant grapes made the cut: Petite Pearl and Chisago.
State agency calls anti-fraud law a 'nightmare waiting to happen'

State agency calls anti-fraud law a 'nightmare waiting to happen'

The fraud-fighting strategy was supposed to work like this: Someone walks into a money-wiring business asking to send a large amount of cash overseas. The…
U.S. House hearing finds federal government overdosing on secrecy

U.S. House hearing finds federal government overdosing on secrecy

The number of new classified records fell to a record low in 2014, before rising somewhat last year.
Creepy but legal: 'Voter shaming' letters showed up in Minnetonka mailbox

Creepy but legal: 'Voter shaming' letters showed up in Minnetonka mailbox

The letter arrived at the Guetschow house before Election Day.It included the names and addresses of three of their neighbors in Minnetonka, and a chart…
State gives St. Paul school board blessing for secret meetings

State gives St. Paul school board blessing for secret meetings

The members of the St. Paul school board realized they had a problem, starting with themselves. So as they search for a new superintendent to…
Hopes, fears for transparency in Trump White House

Hopes, fears for transparency in Trump White House

Given that Donald Trump has described journalists as “scum,” “sleaze” and “horrible people,” it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the president-elect refrained from inviting the…
Shiffer: Ex-nursing student suffers legal setback over Facebook posts

Shiffer: Ex-nursing student suffers legal setback over Facebook posts

It’s a weird coincidence. Two major First Amendment rulings centered on Facebook rants by university students about plunging sharp objects into other people. And in…
Minneapolis shines a (partial) light on police misconduct

Minneapolis shines a (partial) light on police misconduct

The mayor called it “exciting” and “an important day for the city of Minneapolis.” The civil rights director said it fulfilled a promise made four…
E-mail policy in Gov. Dayton's office? Delete them at will

E-mail policy in Gov. Dayton's office? Delete them at will

The policy of the office calls for keeping only those e-mail messages that are "records of official transactions." Everything outside of that narrow category can be deleted at will.
Signs can go wild during election season

Signs can go wild during election season

If you were waiting to put up 50-foot billboards in your yard proclaiming the imminent arrival of extraterrestrials, your moment has arrived. Election season means…
Months after Jamar Clark case closed, FBI still won't cough up its file

Months after Jamar Clark case closed, FBI still won't cough up its file

Show us the files. That’s what the Star Tribune said to the FBI immediately after U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger announced that no federal charges would…
Shame on Congress if it grants even more secrecy to Pentagon

Shame on Congress if it grants even more secrecy to Pentagon

An inspector general report at the Pentagon concluded in 2013 that its computer systems were dangerously vulnerable to hackers. At least 49 large military drones…
Paper trail is a cornerstone of state's election integrity

Paper trail is a cornerstone of state's election integrity

As more and more of our world goes digital, what important system relies on paper records any more? Democracy, for one. The heart of Minnesota’s…
Twin Cities man loses iPad, gains $520 in 'movie money'

Twin Cities man loses iPad, gains $520 in 'movie money'

What happened to Anthony Darst was a sorry mix of robbery and fraud. Someone ran off with his iPad, and left him holding an envelope…
Transparency takes center stage in campaign for White House

Transparency takes center stage in campaign for White House

  The last time the White House put out a vacancy sign, both major party presidential candidates talked about transparency so much you’d think they…
Set up to keep leash on spies, U.S.'s most secret court has lost its way

Set up to keep leash on spies, U.S.'s most secret court has lost its way

You can be forgiven if you've never heard of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. It's America's most secretive court, and it convenes behind closed, guarded doors in a federal courthouse in Washington.
Concerned about bad PR, Vadnais Heights keeps $12,000 audit confidential

Concerned about bad PR, Vadnais Heights keeps $12,000 audit confidential

In an interview Friday, the mayor said that he had never seen the audit but that he nevertheless is convinced there's nothing new in it.
Mug shot sleaze doesn't justify keeping them secret

Mug shot sleaze doesn't justify keeping them secret

The mug shot is the star of the voyeur’s internet. Any web search turns up thousands of images of people booked and photographed by police,…
Minneapolis photo trove found in garage sparks hunt for IDs

Minneapolis photo trove found in garage sparks hunt for IDs

On Tuesday, the Hosmer Library is inviting the public to visit between 10 a.m. and noon to view the pictures and help identify who's in them.
Eco-radical punished twice for his jailhouse writings

Eco-radical punished twice for his jailhouse writings

Daniel McGowan was returning to his cell in the Sandstone, Minn., federal prison when he learned he was shipping out. At first he didn’t know…
Scuttled trout project launches man on crusade

Scuttled trout project launches man on crusade

David Holmbeck contacted me this spring with an urgent request. He wanted me to investigate a trout stream restoration project north of Chisholm, Minn., that…
Congress modernizes Freedom of Information Act

Congress modernizes Freedom of Information Act

Last week, Congress sent the White House a bill to revamp the Freedom of Information Act for the 21st century. In a bitterly divided Washington, support for the bill united Republicans such as Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Rep. Darrell Issa of California with Democrats such as Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland.

State hands company big subsidies, but name is hush-hush

Dear Legislature, please give me at least $60 million in taxpayer money over 10 years to create jobs in a depressed part of the state.…
Dismissal of defamation lawsuit vs. blogger helps asserting the sacred right to criticize

Dismissal of defamation lawsuit vs. blogger helps asserting the sacred right to criticize

If you say you’re a guru who has performed thousands of medical miracles around the world, it’s harder to say in court that you’re a…
Plain language center says it's winning war on gobbledygook

Plain language center says it's winning war on gobbledygook

The Minnesota Department of Revenue was honored for the direct and clear way in which it educated consumers about how to get their money back.
Living in downtown Minneapolis was badge of shame in days of Skid Row

Living in downtown Minneapolis was badge of shame in days of Skid Row

Through the early 1960s, the heart of Minneapolis was home to nearly 2,500 men who lived in some of the city's oldest and most decrepit buildings.
Body camera video: In Minnesota, for police eyes only

Body camera video: In Minnesota, for police eyes only

Police across the nation are going Hollywood, but in Minnesota, don’t expect to get invited to a screening any time soon. A bill setting policy…
After federal data breach, red tape snarls victim's search for answers

After federal data breach, red tape snarls victim's search for answers

In order to work on a U.S. Department of Energy contract, Joe Stoebner had to obtain top-secret, Q-level security clearance. If he or anyone in…
Lawsuit aims at Commerce Department's culture of secrecy

Lawsuit aims at Commerce Department's culture of secrecy

Timothy Vande Hey’s lawsuit against his former employer, the state of Minnesota, features lurid allegations of sexual harassment by a deputy Commerce commissioner. Yet that’s…
Hennepin County fined for violating records law

Hennepin County fined for violating records law

Tony Webster wanted to know whether the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office was using newfangled technology to track people through their faces, fingerprints and irises. So…
Panama Papers shed light on corporate secrecy at home

Panama Papers shed light on corporate secrecy at home

It took a massive leak of secret records from a Panama City law firm to reveal the global scope of tax evasion, profit offshoring and…

Chanhassen youth sports association bars mother from attending games

With four of her children playing basketball, baseball and softball in the Chanhassen Athletic Association, Mary Valentine's life revolves around youth sports. These days, though, she doesn't dare go to a game or a practice.
How 'transparency' became a hot word in divisive Jamar Clark case

How 'transparency' became a hot word in divisive Jamar Clark case

Thanks to the public outrage over Jamar Clark’s death, “transparency” is suddenly the hottest word in Minneapolis. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman used the word…
Shiffer: Promises made on police videos, but few released

Shiffer: Promises made on police videos, but few released

In December, the Star Tribune requested the body camera video of the an encounter from the city of Columbia Heights. City Attorney James Hoeft said no. Last week, the Star Tribune made a formal request to the state to declare the video a public record.
Censorship or bad writing? Behind MnDOT's scuttled book deal on St. Croix bridge

Censorship or bad writing? Behind MnDOT's scuttled book deal on St. Croix bridge

Needed: A new history of the Stillwater Lift Bridge. Willing to pay: $50,000. Requirement: A happy ending. The Minnesota Department of Transportation is looking for…

On Sunshine Week, how we can brighten our public life

Every year, First Amendment freaks like me observe Sunshine Week. It has nothing to do with flying down to Cabo for some rays. It’s about…
The fight against 'revenge porn'

The fight against 'revenge porn'

Three Gopher basketball players were benched for the rest of the season last week because a video of a sex act, featuring at least one…
Phishing scam pits Intuit against St. Paul's Cadenza Music

Phishing scam pits Intuit against St. Paul's Cadenza Music

The collection letter sent to Cadenza Music in St. Paul resembled what shows up in your mailbox when you forget to pay a phone or…
Minnesota attorney general appeals to Google to stop deceptive locksmith ads

Minnesota attorney general appeals to Google to stop deceptive locksmith ads

In the latest chapter of “seeing isn’t believing,” brought to you by Google, meet your “local locksmith.” That’s what plenty of Twin Cities residents thought…
Salt shaker emoji sparks a menu fight over free speech

Salt shaker emoji sparks a menu fight over free speech

These days, you can always spot emojis on the menu. A hot pepper warns you of a spice hazard. A leafy sprout heralds a vegetarian…
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