James Eli Shiffer, the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor, digs into data and documents to uncover the news. Reach him at 612-673-4116, james.shiffer@startribune.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameselishiffer. Tell us what to investigate. Send your story tips to whistleblower@startribune.com.

My mystifying journey into the world of FOIA

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: July 18, 2014 - 5:33 PM

I know a little about state public records laws, having spent my career as a reporter and editor for regional newspapers. It's fair to say that before I started Full Disclosure this spring, I knew squat about the Freedom of Information Act, the federal open government law that's about the same age as me.

Now, a half dozen FOIA requests and many puzzling encounters later, my knowledge of how FOIA works has advanced to squat-plus. Fortunately, our nation is blessed with a community of FOIA experts, who have the paper cuts and bloodshot eyes to prove it. It takes only a tweet with a #FOIA hashtag to bring them to your aid.

At the risk of scaring my few readers away from this blog, I'm declaring on this FOIA Friday (a weekly event created by this ragtag community) that I will use this space to bear witness to my fumbling efforts to get records from our federal government using its officially approved process.

Today, I want to share my experience attempting to get records from the Department of the Army about an individual who was "debarred," or put on a blacklist that prevents him from getting government contracts. I'm not mentioning his name here, because I honestly don't know whether this is newsworthy or not. It took me a week or two to find out where to send my request, but a helpful Army FOIA program analyst gave me the correct email address. I emailed my request on May 20. I'm thinking this is fairly simple, because there's probably a standard order that's sent to any debarred contractor.

I got a letter back June 5 from the program analyst, indicating he had forwarded my FOIA request to the keeper of those records: the U.S. Army Legal Services Agency at the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals, Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

After hearing nothing for six weeks, I have repeatedly called the phone number listed on the FOIA response. No one answers this phone. The voicemail, not surprisingly, is full.

Next stop: the Army's FOIA Liaison!

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