Understanding FOIA responses from the Governmetn
May 13, 2016 2:58 PM   Subscribe

I am working on a book about the public radio pledge drive, and I FOIAed federal agencies I thought might have given money to individual public radio stations or to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB redistributes federal money to stations via a Congressionally mandated 75/25 split.

In my original request, I asked NASA if they gave $ to either of the above, and they said no. But when I checked USASpending, I found a grants from NASA to WGBH since 2008 for almost $112 million dollars, and a new contract with WGBH for almost $2 million dollars. When I showed this website to NASA, they said "As stated in our previous correspondence, in order for the Agency to initiate a search for information related to any NASA contract or grant(s), a contract or grant number is required ..." If I don't know the contract or grant number, and they "can't" tell me, how do I verify the information?
posted by CollectiveMind to Law & Government (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
posted by CollectiveMind at 2:59 PM on May 13, 2016

From that usaspending.gov page, when I click on Massachuesetts, I get a map, and a list that has Award ID's on it.

Some googling about Federal Award ID Numbers (FAIN) leads me to think that they might satisfy the request for "contract or grant number."

As for how why they said No to your original question, it might have to do with the precise wording that you used in your request -- the WGBH Educational Foundation is not a public radio station, but is a non-profit that oversees some public broadcasting stations.
posted by sparklemotion at 3:19 PM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, my informal understanding is that the folks who respond to FOIA requests are often rules-lawyerish beyond belief so you have to be all "public radio station or nonprofit involved with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or ..." Also, please don't use that language because I've never done an FOIA and just made that up. But I know some reporters who have and they made their requests simultaneously as broad and as narrow if possible. Which doesn't exactly make sense but I hope it's helpful anyway.
posted by Bella Donna at 3:36 PM on May 13, 2016

Bella Donna, I used language almost exactly like yours because as you correctly assume, the net has to be cast as wide as possible and as narrowly as possible - a fine line to walk.
posted by CollectiveMind at 3:44 PM on May 13, 2016

I think what you need is in their grant database. I typed in "broadcasting" in the institution section and found a whole bunch that looks like what you're seeking, including grants to WGBH and PBS.

Just fyi - FOIA requests are focused on you specifically seeking out records that you believe the federal agency is likely to have. One of the guiding principles is that the request has to "reasonably" describe the records being sought - So think about it in the context of what sort of paper would this agency have on this specific issue, and how would you describe that information?

I'm not sure how your first request was phrased, nor do I know what the response was from NASA, but in my experience specifically asking a question "Do you give money to X?" would result in a denial because the agency would say there isn't a record being described here, you're just asking a question. Hence their request that you reference a specific grant number.

Without having found that publicly available website, my strategy at that point would have been a FOIA for "a list of all grant numbers awarded to WGBH" or something like that first, then after that seek out the individual grants. But now that you have a lot more information, if you want more, use that info in the database to describe each of those individual grants in your records request - but remember, it has to exist in the form of a searchable record, not as a one-off question.
posted by Karaage at 4:17 PM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

OP, you may already know this but there's also a big FOIA backlog. Last year it was reported that the Obama administration had set a new record for withholding information in response to FOIA requests. The AP's general counsel testified before Congress about it. In January a Congressional report was released that said "agencies are overusing and misapplying FOIA exemptions, citing examples at the Federal Communications Commission and Food and Drug Administration." Here's a link to the report's PDF. Tl;dr: This sucks and is also normal. The IRE offers FOIA resources and best practices. Hope you can get the info without filing an appeal. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 5:03 PM on May 13, 2016

I would suggest giving the organization that you are filing the FOIL request with specific search terms to use in addition to the wide net approach. Suggest they search on specific terms like "radio" "broadcasting" etc.
posted by AugustWest at 11:47 PM on May 13, 2016

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