Jailing Journalists Over FOIA Requests Makes Government Less Accountable
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Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests are often treated like a cancer within federal government agencies. For obvious reasons.
Instead of handling them directly, federal agencies often stonewall or send them bills they cannot afford, all so that they may avoid releasing what requesters are after. Regardless of how they act, the law requires that federal agencies respond to the requests within 20 days, unless “unusual circumstances” arise.
Recently, federal agents went somewhat further, sending a requester from Georgia to jail.
According to Tech Dirt, Fannin Focus publisher Mark Thomason and his attorney, Russell Stookey, were arrested and charged with attempted identity fraud and identity fraud after filing a records request. The arrest was questioned after news reports claimed the pair had been going after a local judge and members of the court staff prior to the request, questioning the use of racial slur in the courtroom tracing back to Judge Brenda Weaver’s predecessor.
Thomason had acquired the copy of a transcript hoping it would show the district attorney and court deputies attaching the racial slur to the defendant’s name. To his surprise, the transcript had been modified. Once he asked for the audio recording of the hearing, his request was rejected, prompting him to write an article that questioned the court stenographer’s professionalism. That’s when things turned sour.
Once the article was published, the stenographer sued Thomason for defamation, but the suit was dropped, prompting the court employee to motion to recover legal fees, even after having received a check for $16,000 to cover her legal fees from then-Judge Roger Bradley. In order to show the current judge the stenographer had already recovered her legal fees, Thomason filed more requests, but the action backfired when Judge Weaver and the district attorney brought charges against the journalist and his lawyer, claiming that the information should not be made available so the pair wouldn’t “use the banking information on those checks for himself.”
According to Tech Dirt, the judge’s response was to accuse Thomason of seeking to take funds from the judge’s bank account without being able to prove intent. But while in two of the counts of the indictment Thomason and his lawyer are accused of identity fraud and attempted identity fraud, the third count is what causing free speech advocates to lose their minds.
“In short,” Tech Dirt writes, “Judge Weaver claims the requesters lied on their request,” hoping to shield courtroom employees from “what she apparently views as harassing behavior.” If this charge stands and Thomason and his lawyers lose this legal battle, Tech Dirt argues, other journalists might have a hard time seeking public records in the future.