FOIA tips and strategies

VCOG was pleased to play host yesterday, May 22, to David Cuillier’s Access Across America tour. Forty citizens, private investigators and print and broadcast journalists signed up to spend their Saturday afternoon hearing Cuillier deliver a lively presentation on the power of public records and strategies for getting them.


The Society of Professional Journalists and the National FOI Coalition are sponsoring Cuillier’s roadshow, which, to date, has hit 17 states, and has something like 15 more to go.


You can read Cuillier’s recap of the VCOG event here.


Much of Cuillier’s presentation is drawn from the book he’s co-authored with NFOIC’s Charles Davis, The Art of Access. And the handout given to each attendee boils the book down into 33 information-packed pages.


I'll be reprinting passages from the handout and the book over the several weeks.


Here are a few of David’s tips that I found particularly interesting yesterday:


  1. Buying a house -  When discussing the everyday uses of FOIA, David notes the vast array of records that could help you decide whether or not you should buy that house you’ve been looking at. Property assessments, testing scores of the schools, neighborhood crime are fairly obvious, but there’s much more. Does the locality’s comprehensive plan show future development in the area? A road, a new neighborhood, a zoning change. Has the local airport filed a plan to reroute its runways? Have nuisance complaints been filed in the area? In other words, there’s a lot more information out there that, as David said, “the real estate agents won’t tell you.”
  2. Map the government - In order to understand what records are out there, and where to go to get them, David suggests mapping the government: its structure, its budget, is organization, what kind of records they maintain, etc. The more you understand the connections and hierarchies, the more effective you can be in asking for the right records from the right people.
  3. FOIA on the spot - Take fill-in-the-blank FOIA request letters with you to public meetings. When you hear a reference to a report or record, jot it down on a request letter and hand it to the clerk/administrator at the end of the meeting.
  4. Keep track - Create a calendar to keep track of your FOIA requests. Make note of when you make a request, what you hear and when, who you talk to, and what the response deadlines are. This will help you keep track of multiple requests, for one, and will also create a paper trail should litigation arise.
  5. Many routes to the same place - Regardless of the record, very rarely will there be just one copy. Many copies in the same department, many copies in multiple departments. Ask for the same records from multiple sources. Some records that one person/department may withhold or redact, another person/department won’t.
  6. The record within the record - If you receive a record in electronic format, there’s often more to it than what meets the eye. When reading an electronic record in the record’s native program (e.g., a Word document in Word, an PDF in a PDF reader), there’s usually a setting that tells a story about the records creation: when was it created, who originated, who edited it, how many corrections have been made and when was the last one. If the metadata doesn’t match up to what the record says or what the “official” statement is, it’s time to start asking questions.
  7. Appeal - Virginia doesn’t have a formal appeals process, but that shouldn’t get in the way of an informal appeal. A personal appeal. Multiple appeals. Ask them to reconsider. Ask them to explain the denial further. Negotiate for lower fees. Create a dialog that applies not only to the request you’re appealing, and that will carry over to future requests.


What tips and strategies do you have? E-mail me at and I’ll reprint some of them here and on our Facebook and Twitter pages.


Finally, a big, big thank you to Ginger Stanley and the Virginia Press Association, who provided a spacious and comfortable meeting room for the event.

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