The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals held hearings yesterday on a 2011 lawsuit brought by the Argus Leader of Sioux Falls, S.D., over whether data about the payments made to businesses participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, should be publicly available.
As Josh Gerstein reports for Politico, an attorney for the newspaper argued that “a lower court judge misinterpreted the law by ruling that a confidentiality provision for retailer applications allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to withhold all data on payments to those retailers.” One of the judges in yesterday’s hearing seems to agree:
During the hearing in St. Paul, Minn., Judge Steven Colloton said that the information requested by the Argus Leader didn’t appear to be the same information that USDA is required to keep confidential in its application process.
“They want to know how much the government paid in a given year,” he said.
“Government agencies talk a lot about transparency but it’s their actions that count,” said Irene M. Wielawski, chair of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee. “We’re happy to support the Argus Leader in its effort to obtain food stamps data and hope the federal court agrees that there’s no justification for the USDA to keep secret how much taxpayers pay vendors for this important safety net program.”
AHCJ joined with six other journalism organizations in April to send a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging the administration to make such information publicly available:
With any federal program, but especially one as large as SNAP, records should be public unless there is a compelling reason to hide them. We have yet to hear a good reason for this secrecy. And we believe it is simply wrong to withhold basic information about a multibillion-dollar program from the people who pay for it.
In an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 1 and picked up from the Tribune-McClatchy service by more than 40 newspapers around the country, Wielawski and Felice J. Freyer, then co-chairs of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee, pointed out that – despite the debates in Congress over cutting the program – the public and Congress know “almost nothing about how the program’s $80 billion is spent.”
Jonathan Ellis, an Argus Leader reporter and USA Today correspondent, writes that it’s not known when a decision in the case will be made.
- Journalists call on USDA to release food stamp information, April 8, 2013
- Pa. bill would require disclosure of food stamp purchases, April 30, 2013
- LA Times op-ed calls for releasing information about food stamp program, Aug. 1, 2013