Tag Archives: freedom of information act

Feds indict doc whose abuses were detailed in 2010 WSJ series

In The Wall Street Journal, John Carreyrou reports that a physician the paper spotlighted in a data-driven series on Medicare abuses has now been “indicted by a federal grand jury … for allegedly submitting more than $13 million of false claims.”

The article marks the first time the Journal has been able to print the physician’s name (Emma Poroger), even though they’ve been aware of it for more than a year.

The Journal identified Dr. Poroger, a doctor of osteopathy, as having suspicious billing patterns by mining the Medicare claims database, a computerized record of every bill submitted to the program. But her name was withheld in the October 2010 front-page article because Medicare keeps information pertaining to individual doctors confidential under a three-decade-old court injunction.

That injunction stems from a 1979 lawsuit filed by the American Medical Association, the doctors’ trade group, to keep secret how much money physicians receive from Medicare. At the time, the court said doctors’ privacy trumped the public’s interest in knowing how tax dollars are spent.

The Journal’s publisher, Dow Jones & Co., filed court papers this year seeking to overturn the injunction. In September, a federal judge in Florida ruled that Dow Jones’s case could proceed.

Carreyrou also called out a few other physicians featured anonymously in the series whose names had also been made public in various official proceedings.


Reporter FOIA’s database further exposing the toll war takes on returning vets

Writing for the Bay Citizen and The New York Times, Aaron Glantz brings a new, data-based take on the mental and physical toll the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken on returning veterans, thanks to what he calls “an obscure government database called the Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem death file,” which he obtained via FOIA.

The database, which reveals a high rate of suicide and fatally risky behavior, lists all veterans who earned Veterans Affairs benefits since 1973.

Records from that database, provided to The Bay Citizen under the Freedom of Information Act, show that the VA is aware of 4,194 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who died after leaving the military. More than half died within two years of discharge. Nearly 1,200 were receiving disability compensation for a mental health condition, the most common of which was post-traumatic stress disorder.

Names were redacted, but Glantz nonetheless managed to identify a number of veterans, including a troubled 26-year-old man who threw himself under a train just three days after being turned away by the VA. In the course of his investigation, Glantz has managed to fill in some of the gaps in the federal records, a process which has shown just how lacking the VA’s data can be.

In October, The Bay Citizen, using public health records, reported that 1,000 California veterans under 35 died from 2005 to 2008 — three times the number killed in Iraq and Afghanistan during the same period. At the time, the VA said it did not keep track of the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who died after leaving the military.

The VA database does not include veterans who never applied for benefits or who were not receiving benefits at the time of their death, according to the agency. The VA said it also did not keep track of the cause of death.

When confronted with his agency’s shortcomings, a VA representative responded in a manner that belied his agency’s lack of focus on recordkeeping.

David Bayard, a VA spokesman, said the agency was working hard to treat veterans with mental health issues. “VA has some pretty fine programs,” Mr. Bayard said, “but unfortunately we aren’t always successful.”

AP lawyer: Be aggressive in using FOIA

Karen Kaiser, an attorney who leads the FOIA legal work for The Associated Press, spoke about the importance of the Freedom of Information Act during a gathering of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council in Des Moines today.

Kaiser, as you might expect, advocates for the active use of FOIA and cited several examples in which important news stories were done using data and information gained from FOIA requests.

She also points out that, despite the Obama administration’s public push to post data and records online and be more transparent, “Exemption 5” was used at least 70,779 times during the 2009 budget year – an increase of 49 percent over President George W. Bush’s last year in office. That is the exemption for “intra-agency documents, such as memos that reflect pre-decisional discussions within an agency.”

Kaiser describes some specific struggles the AP has engaged in with the Department of Homeland Security and reveals the documents it eventually pried loose showed that political staff was involved in revewing FOIA requests:

When Homeland Security failed to respond within the 20-day period required by statute, AP filed an administrative appeal. The agency ignored that too. So we reached out to OGIS, and OGIS was able to help. After several discussions with Homeland Security, OGIS was able to successfully negotiate for disclosure, and AP received nearly 1,000 pages of information. Despite blacked-out passages contained in the release, the information described in remarkable detail a department policy put in place after President Obama’s election requiring a wide range of FOIA requests to be vetted by senior political appointees before being released. The political staff sought information about people who made the requests – where they lived, whether they were private citizens or reporters, and details about the organizations where they worked. If a member of Congress sought documents, employees were told to specify Republican or Democrat. Even AP’s request for Homeland Security emails was itself submitted for review by the agency’s political advisors.

Kaiser offers five specific pieces of advice for news organizations using FOIA, that include actually using FOIA to sensitize agencies to their need to respond and opening up lines of communication with government agencies. Read the full text of her speech for more suggestions.

‘Gold mine’ of workplace toxicity data released

After a long FOIA battle that ended with a federal lawsuit, Adam Finkel, former OSHA director of health standards programs for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration  (bio and contact information), has “acquired data on some three million samples, taken at about 75,000 locations from 1979 to 2009,” the Center for Public Integrity reports as part of its “Data Mine” series.

The air and “wipe” samples in question were taken to determine workplace exposure to toxic substances. Finkel plans to analyze this data “gold mine” and make it available to the public in an easily digestible format (a project for which he has already secured grant money). At some point, OSHA itself may do the same.

Asked if OSHA plans to make the sampling data public, agency spokeswoman Diana Petterson responded in an e-mail that “it is under consideration and must address certain concerns including the data integrity and the completeness of the data.” Finkel, who left OSHA after accusing the agency of failing to test its own inspectors for dangerous levels of beryllium, is skeptical. “They made it as hard as they possibly could,” he said. “This database is up to 30 years old, and they’ve shown no interest in making it accessible or doing anything useful with it internally.”

The Data Mine series, a collaboration between The Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation, will highlight inaccessible or poorly presented information from the federal government.

From the CIA to the CDC, we’ll be looking at data that needs to be public, with regular posts on the Center’s and Sunlight’s websites. We’ll describe each data set, as well as officials’ plans for putting it online – or not.

Sunshine Week may drop employee, fundraising

Clint Hendler reports in the Columbia Journalism Review that Sunshine Week’s only full-time coordinator will likely lose her job soon.


Photo by **Mary** via Flickr

The media-sponsored weeklong push for open government will be put together on a part-time basis by an employee at the American Society of News Editors. Sponsors hope the event has gained enough momentum to keep going with less intensive planning and organization and more reliance upon volunteer efforts.

The Knight Foundation grants that kept the event going since its 2005 inception have run their course, and a major fundraising push raised only $471,600 of a planned $2.5 million towards a permanent endowment. The Knight Foundation will match any funds raised. According to Hendler, the disappointing totals have led ASNE to pull resources out of fundraising efforts and instead devote them to keeping Sunshine Week going.