Interview with the Albrights
Paulette Albright is an audiologist retired from the Medical College of Virginia. Her husband Lee is a retired optometrist who still conducts a clinic at the Rehabilitation Center for the Blind in Richmond twice a month. Neither of them expected they would become experts on requesting government records through the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. But as correspondent Maria Hinojosa reports in "Something Fishy," what started as sneaking suspicions turned into a full-blown homegrown investigation.
In this exclusive web interview with the Albrights, learn more about how FOIA worked for them. Also, visit our state-by-state map to find out how you can obtain public records in your neck of the woods.
Q: How did you get the idea to use FOIA?
LEE: When we started off, we were asking questions, which isn't covered under FOIA. They were answered originally, but once we started getting into sensitive matters, they stopped. And we were just vaguely aware of FOIA from just watching the news on TV and reading the newspapers. We knew that there was a Freedom of Information Act out there, so we just went on the internet, found the Virginia Coalition for Open Government (sponsored by the Virginia Press Association and the Virginia Association of
Broadcasters; and also funded by grants and members' annual dues) and the Freedom of Information Advisory Council (sponsored by the government) websites. And they laid it out in detail.
Q: Was there a trick to getting FOIA to work for you?
LEE: Just be persistent.
PAULETTE: And as precise as you can be. Very often a general citizen doesn't know the specific name of a document or how it's referred to in an agency. If you can, be specific about what you want or even communicate directly with phone calls.
We did request from one state agency that called us and said "Do I understand this correctly? Is this what you want?" And this person had a conversation about what it was we wanted, so we could narrow it down. They didn't have to provide information that we didn't really want that would drive up the costs. If you can communicate with them, that's ideal.
Q: Would you do anything differently?
LEE: We were dealing with a rogue agency, and FOIA was a tool to get the information to substantiate what we knew was wrong. And we would do it again.
Q: Would you have found what you were looking for if you hadn't gotten insider tips?
PAULETTE: It probably would have taken several more FOIA requests. I think eventually we would have gotten there but we would have asked for some information and then found out we needed to ask for other things as well. Some of the expense records that we asked for really are a set of three tandem records that have to go together. If we had just asked for one, we would have had incomplete information.
LEE: The credit card monthly statement from American Express, that was a no-brainer. It was easy to know you should ask for that. Also, there's an internal reconciliation document - it just lists what they spent and what pot it had to come out of. The key was asking for the individual receipts, and we would never have known to ask for them.
Q: Are FOIA requests easy enough for anybody to file?
LEE: Our experience was with a rogue agency, so we really had to have someone who was dedicated to the process to really get through to them. But for all the other agencies we dealt with, yeah, anybody can do it.
PAULETTE: It has all the elements of being user-friendly but if you come up to resistance, the average citizen might be discouraged and not pursue. That's where these websites and agencies can be helpful. I would say to people if they do have difficulty with FOIA, not to give up, to go to other organizations. Keep looking, keep asking for help and there'll be someone to assist.
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"The Sunshine Gang" was made possible in part by John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.