"Sunshine laws" are rules that allow public inquiry into government affairs. "Open meeting laws" such as California's "Brown Act" force public access to the decision-making processes of government bodies, both on paper and in person, while the Federal "Freedom Of Information Act" (FOIA) and it's state-level relatives (Public Records Act in California (1)) force most government documents to be "public record" and available for inspection or copying by any citizen or legal resident alien who asks (2).
We're going to focus on the use and tactics of public document access. Meeting minutes and transcripts under "open meeting laws" can also be a rich source of information at times, and can be asked for just like any other government document under the FOIA or similar.
A third source of data revolves around campaign contribution records.
Please note that I am not an attorney. This article should give people a good starting point and generate ideas, but it is not specific legal advice.
In this article, we're going to look at two very successful uses of "sunshine laws" to expose problems, and one ongoing case.
CASE HISTORY ONE: The Demise Of The Million Mom March
Early in 2001, Nadja Adolf (NRA and Second Amendment Sisters activist) was approached by other SAS members about an oddity on the web page for the "Million Mom March" gun control organization: their address was within "San Francisco General Hospital", which is wholly owned by and operated by the city and county of San Francisco.
Nadja and I decided to take a closer look.
1) On the Internet, we confirmed that at least one of their many organizations (at SF General) was an overtly political organization (IRS 501(c)(4) tax status) the way the NRA/ILA is, versus a "tax deductible non-political educational charity" (501(c)(3) like the main NRA. Not surprising, since the original "Numerically Challenged Mom March"(3) of May 2000 in DC was invented by the Democratic National Committee.
2) We asked for the latest tax filings for the Million Mom March tax-exempt organization, which yielded interesting clues: a total lack of rent payments, the names of key officers, etc. It also yielded an up-close look at grabber psychology that Nadja and I won't soon forget - it was Nadja who managed to sweet-talk us up past their impressive security/intercom system, and the reward was to watch them freak out when they realized there were "NRA nuts" on-premises, despite our civilized demeanor. Watching their 130lb unarmed "security person" catch a glimpse of 280lb me, and whimpering, was worth all the madness. (In order to be a tax-exempt public charity of either tax status, especially 501(c)(3) where the donations are tax-deductible, you have to make your IRS filings public. Yet another source of data at times.)
3) Paydirt came when we filed a "Public Records Act" inquiry aimed at the Hospital:
Note the general informality here. This wasn't crafted by a lawyer, nor was that necessary. All you need is a general idea of "where to dig".
The response from this mid-level official (4) in SF General broke the back of the Million Mom March as an effective organization (here slightly paraphrased for space):
What mattered was what the hospital did NOT know, and should have in order to be a proper caretaker of taxpayer funds. The hospital thought the space was being used by a medical charity called "Trauma Foundation", and had no clue what else inhabited their building.
We did a follow-up PRAR that netted a detail we should have tried for the first time around: the name of the "Trauma Foundation" contact person who the hospital knew of. That turned out to be an attorney name of Eric Gorovitz. Gorovitz's name was all over the tax statements for the other organizations Trauma Foundation had spun off, including "Bell Campaign" and "Million Mom March" - so we definitely had outright fraud going on versus a "mistake".
Within two months of filing the first PRAR, the MMM laid off 30 out of 35 of their staff and did a FAST move right out of SF General. They later merged with HCI due to no remaining funds or credibility.
And we scored a big PR win (5).
CASE HISTORY TWO: State Attorney General Shenanigans in Massachusetts
One of the functions of the MA AG's office is to craft "consumer protection product regulations". Normally, that means teddy bears with eyeballs that won't fall out and choke a toddler, but the uber-grabbers in that office came up with the idea of "regulating handgun safety".
The results of this "regulation" were insane: at first, the AG's office wouldn't even say what they considered "unsafe", but promised prosecution of anybody who sold a handgun that ended up declared "unsafe". So handgun sales were crippled for over a year, and then when the list finally came out, it was REAL short.
People within the NRA's state affiliate in MA (Gun Owners Action League) asked an important question: since the AG's office can do safety regulations, but cannot just randomly ban whatever they politically dislike, what sort of science, evidence or similar did they have to support the creation of these regulations?
GOAL filed an information request under MA state law that asked for all documents regarding the new regulations: memos, reports, evidence gathered, etc. They ended up wading through 24,000 pages of response documents. Among the treasures recovered (these are quotes from internal AG staff memos):
That was from just one memo. Others contained:
The state AG staffers who wrote the above were concerned that the media would ask questions about the propriety of this entire affair. They underestimated the level of mainstream anti-self-defense media bias present today - until GOAL started poking around, all of this went unquestioned.
GOAL is formally asking Federal AG Ashcroft to investigate. It's in his purview, because the state AG is among other things the state's "top cop" and if he's gone rotten, Federal oversight is warranted.
You can see the 38-page report (from which the above quotes were taken) here:
This is still a developing situation; the report was published January of this year.
In a bizarre response, anti-gunners came up with a new proposed law (strongly supported by the current MA AG Tom Reilly) specifying that all work produced by state government attorneys would be hidden from public view (8).
In the case of work done for lawsuits, this makes some sense. But having given the state AG's office regulatory powers, it shouldn't apply to any such regulatory functions.
In other words, this is a direct response to GOAL's embarrassing digging.
"When you're taking flak, it's a good sign you're over the target zone!"
CASE HISTORY THREE: CCW analysis in California
In California, our state Supreme Court ruled back in 1986 that CCW records were to be made public, except for the applicant's street addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers and the like. The Public Records Act Request (PRAR) that I crafted had to explicitly cite that case.
This PRAR is unusual in that it also seeks to "educate" police departments. In most cases people in this state who live inside of towns get discriminated against by their Sheriff, due to illegal agreements between Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. So if you can convince the Police Chief to "exit the CCW biz", you give that town's residents better access to the Sheriff and greater odds of scoring CCW.
Since the agency in question MUST read the document request, you can sometimes make the information flow a two-way thing. Remember this: it's ALWAYS a two-way flow, therefore be careful. If there are other data sources to look at before letting the agency know you're digging, exhaust those first.
Here's the basic PRAR we're using in California:
This document is in many ways a "legal bludgeon". If it's possible to get a department to turn around with lesser measures, by all means carry out an educational campaign first.because this thing can make enemies.
We don't use it on CCW-friendly agencies.
When we get data back, we first analyze it for compliance with state law (Penal Codes 12050-54), starting with the policy manual.
The list of permitholders can be run against campaign contribution data. Campaign finance records for county officials are at the county seat (usually an elections board has the records for each candidate). The office of the Secretary of State has state-level records.
In counties with a high Latino population per census data, we compare the permitholder roster with the Hispanic permitholder rate (based on permitholders with obvious Latino surnames) to see if it's anywhere close to the Hispanic population rate. It's generally WAY off. Good stuff if you're interested in current patterns of racist gun control.
Then for real fun, we take the permitholders with the weakest "good cause for issuance" statements and we figure out who they are, who they're politically connected to, who they're related to, etc. That leads to all kinds of merriment, great stuff when you're looking for equal protection violations and grabber embarrassment.
Obviously, there's a lot of potential application for these tricks far beyond gun rights issues. Creativity and guts matters far more than a law degree.
When you dig up something neat, bring it to whoever leads your state's NRA affiliate, such as GOAL in MA, MCRGO in Michigan, the NRA Member's Council system in California. They'll best know how to help you exploit the dirt gathered, and somebody should be able to help you write up your findings if you're not up to it yourself.
I'll say this: it's FUN to fight back, and this is a dirt-cheap and highly effective way to do it.
2) The FOIA and it's variants cannot force the gov't to "create" documents or do research, so the game is to guess what documents exist. In all cases, they're responding "under oath" so if they say the documents don't exist, when they do, you can really nail 'em good in court later.
3) No way did they have a million "moms" in DC. Best guess based on aerial photos: 70,000 tops (of all genders and ages). Maybe another 20,000 in various other cities on the same day.
4) Carmen is a facilities manager at SF General.
5) We made the front page of the local paper (SF Examiner), see also: http://www.ninehundred.com/~equalccw/commiemommies.html - the Wall Street Journal's online "daily best of the web" cited the SF Examiner article, and NRA's First Freedom wrote it up in the July 2001 issue, page 42, "Million Moms March Off The Edge" by Bob Boatman.
6) No joke, this was in the original AG's office internal memo!
7) A reference to now-former MA Attorney General Scott Harshbarger.
Jim March (email) is a California gun rights activist.
Since this was written, he has filed suit against the California Department of Justice and Attorney General, for their failure to release CCW issuance data under the state Public Records Act. You can read about that case on his site, and all PayPal proceeds will finance that legal action and future cases.
His website at http://www.ninehundred.com/~equalccw contains some of the initial "fruits" of the CCW PRAR queries, under the "CCW Expose Project".
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