Strategies for Navigating FOIA Outside Your State

foia fest logo
FOIA Fest takes place virtually Feb. 24-26

By Lu Calzada

Filing a successful FOIA request can be challenging under the best of circumstances, let alone when trying to pry information from reluctant officials in another state. The solution? Be strategic and seek out allies.

That was the advice from a panel of news professionals Friday evening as FOIAFest 2021 began a three-day virtual run with more than 400 people registered for the annual event dedicated to public records reporting.  

Presented by the Chicago Headline Club, FOIAFest 2021 features more than 20 panels and training workshops led by journalists, attorneys and community groups. 

Friday’s session opened with the discussion, “Navigating FOIA Outside Your State,” moderated by Angela Caputo, an investigative reporter for American Public Media.

Panelist Tony Briscoe, an environmental reporter for ProPublica Illinois, related an experience he had while working on an investigative story about water contamination in the Great Lakes and algae blooms in Lake Erie. His issue? Playing the waiting game for information.  

“I was in a tug of war with the state of Ohio,” Briscoe said. “They don’t have a set time limit to get back to you on FOIA requests,” which threatened to turn what is already a long process into something even worse.

He said in these types of situations, it becomes increasingly important to focus on a strategy.

One of the tactics Briscoe said he used was telling the Ohio agencies how important the information was to matters of public health. He said sometimes to get what you need, reporters need to “play a little bit of hardball.” 

Caputo and fellow panelists Kalyn Belsha, a national education reporter for Chalkbeat, and Beryl Lipton, a senior reporter and projects editor for Muck Rack, provided personal tips for navigating out-of-state FOIA requests. The advice included asking for detailed invoices before paying any fees, finding advocates to help read FOIA laws from other jurisdictions, and contacting colleagues who might have experience working with a state where you are seeking information.

Belsha has used FOIA extensively, not long ago working across state lines to uncover records about school desegregation. In her research, Belsha explored grant applications to see what schools would have done with the money provided by a program that was ultimately scrapped under former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. 

Belsha said one challenge was not knowing when – or if – she would ever get a response. “That’s where my FOIA battles began. Our fear was that the federal government would take forever to get back to us.”

Lipton said it’s often smarter to file FOIA requests through local jurisdictions rather than federal agencies, pointing out she chose to file a recent request with sheriffs’ departments rather than the Federal Bureau of Prisons when gathering information on prisons and policing.