The true value of FOI

By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director

Sometimes a paper trail reveals truths that government officials deny or would prefer go undetected.

The saga of Eric Thomas, the former Air Force Academy cadet who spied on classmates at the behest of superiors and then was expelled, brings to mind the tape-recorded message heard at the start of each episode of the old “Mission: Impossible” TV series. Jim Phelps gets his instructions and then, just before the tape disintegrates, he is reminded: “As always, should you of any of your I.M. Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”

As The Gazette in Colorado Springs has reported, Thomas worked dozens of cases as a confidential informant for the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI), some leading to convictions against fellow cadets for drug use, sexual assault and other behavior that violated the academy’s strict code of conduct. But the OSI failed to acknowledge Thomas’ role in the secret program as the academy was kicking him out for actions that he says were part of his undercover work for the agency.

How did Thomas back up his side of the story? It helped a lot that a federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request yielded, according to The Gazette, 86 pages “detailing the cadet’s deep involvement with OSI.” Hard to disavow knowledge of Thomas’ actions with 86 pages of documents on his side.

The Gazette’s investigation was one of three fairly prominent Colorado news stories in the last couple of weeks that had nothing in common, except the vitally important fact that none could have been reported in such detail, or perhaps even reported at all, without the state and federal laws that ensure your rights of access to public information.

If freedom-of-information laws did not exist or could not be relied on to obtain public records, it is likely that you would know little – or nothing at all – about the secret program to spy on Academy cadets. You probably also wouldn’t know about questionable spending in the Douglas County School District or a six-figure PR campaign, paid for by the state health exchange, which offered advice on stifling dissent from board members overseeing the taxpayer-funded insurance marketplace.

And, without these FOI requests, there would have been no pressure on officials to make changes or, as far as the health exchange is concerned, at least question whether taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely.

There has been fallout from each story. On Wednesday, the Air Force Academy’s top general announced that she intends to end the confidential cadet informant system, and the Air Force Inspector General is now investigating the OSI’s handling of Thomas while he was a cadet.

In Douglas County, the school district’s transportation director resigned following a 7News investigation into his department’s spending. Records obtained under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) showed that school district money had paid for tax-exempt Sam’s Club memberships for 19 people, including the director’s wife and another non-employee.

The decision by the head of Connect for Health Colorado to withdraw a pay-raise request does not appear directly related to a story by Solutions (a grant-funded publication of the University of Colorado Denver) on the health exchange spending $118,000 for a consultant’s public-relations advice. Nonetheless, a Denver Post editorial lumped these issues together and urged exchange officials “to keep in mind that transparency will be essential in maintaining sufficient public trust.” Again, it was a CORA request (by Solutions) that revealed information about the health exchange’s PR spending.

The public’s right to inspect “public records” is codified in statutes because our democracy depends on information. To hold elected officials accountable, citizens need to know what their governments are doing and how taxpayer dollars are spent. But these laws shouldn’t be taken for granted. You typically don’t get your hands on public records if you don’t ask – sometimes again and again.

Few people know this better than Eric Thomas. The first time he requested his case records under the Freedom of Information Act, the OSI said no such records existed. He requested them again and got the same answer. The third request came from his congressman. Voilà! Eighty-six pages! By then, however, Thomas had been expelled from the academy. Of course, under FOIA and CORA, any citizen is entitled to inspect records that shed light on the operations of government. One need not get elected to Congress to do so.

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