By Fran Silverman, advisory board member, New England First Amendment Coalition
Never take no for an answer was a key theme during a panel discussion March 27 at Quinnipiac University focusing on the use of the Connecticut FOI Act.
The discussion, “Everyday Exposes,” featured Hartford Courant investigative reporter Matt Kauffman, WTIC investigative reporter Beau Berman and WFSB reporter Jill Konopka. The panel was moderated by Connecticut Health Investigative Team editor Lynne DeLucia.
About 20 students and community members attended the panel at Quinnipiac’s York Hill campus and picked up tips about how to use the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act to uncover information in their communities.
Kauffman showed audience members a series of emails in which he requested parking ticket information from Hartford and was first denied, then told it would cost $800, then $400, and was stalled further for weeks and weeks. He finally received all the data requested for free. Kauffman said reporters need to be persistent and keep challenging an agency or government official who is trying to dissuade them from obtaining data by claiming it is exempt from disclosure, or will cost the media outlet an exorbitant amount of money, or both. He also suggested making an informal request before sending an FOI letter, as some officials see a formal FOI request as an accusatory move. And he urged those in the audience to study their state’s FOI law and understand the permissible exemptions as well as the process for appealing a denial.
Berman discussed how he used an FOI request to get information on towing companies after a viewer complained about the unusually high cost she was charged by a Hartford-based towing company. Berman used an FOI request to obtain records from the state that showed that the towing company was in violation of state laws. State officials then took action against the company.
Konopka got a tip from police officers that their bullet-proof vests were out of date and fraying. While she was able to obtain documents showing that a new order for vests had been put in and paid for, many officers hadn’t received the vests for use on their patrols. Shortly after her story aired, the officers received their vests.
The panelists affirmed that while filing an FOI request is important, reporters should actually try all other options first, such as getting the information from a source. That’s because FOI requests are so often denied and the process for appealing can takes months.
The panel discussion was also sponsored by the New England First Amendment Coalition, the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government, Connecticut Library Association, Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists, and the League of Women Voters.