Feathered Bastard

Barack Obama, a FOIA's Best Friend; Joe Arpaio, a Reporter's Worst Enemy

B-Rock, friend to FOIA and the First Amendment, able to leap tall buildings, and hopefully one day soon will be kickin' Arpaio's ass.

I was in a special kind of hell this morning, in a waiting room at a garage, biding my time as my car got worked on. But at least I did get to watch a pretty unique event on TV. There on Fox News was President Barack Obama talking to reporters and his new staff about the Freedom of Information Act, and the importance of government officials' doing everything in their power to comply with public records requests, rather than stonewalling them.

"For a long time now there's been too much secrecy in this city," the President told the assembled. "The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing some thing to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is now over. Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known."

I nearly dropped my complimentary cruller. As a sometimes reluctant member of the Fourth Estate, I'm used to being stymied on such requests by government officials, not to being assisted on them in a timely fashion.

Moments after making the statements above, Obama went on to sign three presidential memoranda regarding transparency and openness in government. A White House Press Release I found online summarizes these memoranda::

"In the Presidential Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, and the Presidential Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act, the President instructs all members of his administration to operate under principles of openness, transparency and of engaging citizens with their government. To implement these principles and make them concrete, the Memorandum on Transparency instructs three senior officials to produce an Open Government Directive within 120 days directing specific actions to implement the principles in the Memorandum. And the Memorandum on FOIA instructs the Attorney General to in that same time period issue new guidelines to the government implementing those same principles of openness and transparency in the FOIA context.

"Finally, the Executive Order on Presidential Records brings those principles to presidential records by giving the American people greater access to these historic documents. This order ends the practice of having others besides the President assert executive privilege for records after an administration ends. Now, only the President will have that power, limiting its potential for abuse. And the order also requires the Attorney General and the White House Counsel to review claims of executive privilege about covered records to make sure those claims are fully warranted by the Constitution.

Arizona has a state version of FOIA, a public records law under Title 39 of the Arizona Revised Statues, which plainly states that, "Public records and other matters in the custody of any officer shall be open to inspection by any person at all times during office hours."

Arizona Public Records Law also makes it clear that anyone, not just journalists, "may request to examine or be furnished copies, printouts or photographs of any public record during regular office hours." The custodian of records can charge a reasonable fee, but he (or she) "must promptly furnish such copies, printouts or photographs." In other words, they cannot stonewall the public.

Why then has Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office forced New Times to sue to obtain records from the MCSO on so many occasions? Why does the MCSO regularly stymie requests that they should be able to fulfill, such as a recent public records request I made into the names of the  deputies who worked on the Fox Reality show Smile...You're Under Arrest? I also asked for the pay rate of those individuals, but the MCSO told me they hadn't kept any records of who was participating in the show, even though the faces of the deputies involved are plain to anyone with pupils.

Sheriff Joe feigns toughness, but his staff regularly denies access to press conferences held on the 19th Floor of the Wells Fargo Building, where the Sheriff has two pricey floors of executive offices.If the Sheriff was really as tough as he maintains, he wouldn't be so fearful of fielding a question or two from a reporter or news outlet that doesn't always kiss his wrinkled fanny.

And as you may recall, Arpaio's goons have been known for arresting journalists and editors they're not fond of, such as my bosses, Village Voice Media honchos Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin, whom the sheriff's "secret police," his notorious Selective Enforcement Unit, arrested back in 2007.

In any case, as I watched Obama take these bold steps regarding government openness, I was reminded once again that Maricopa County as ruled by Joe Arpaio, is like some weird secessionist state, where the freedoms enjoyed by other American citizens continue to be absent, often in defiance of state and, on occasion, federal law.