Sunshine Week was started in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, now the News Leaders Association. The motto of the week is “Open government is good government,” and the week aims to raise awareness about and push for government transparency. To commemorate the week, which is March 13-19, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) guidelines for the “heads of all executive branch departments and agencies to follow.” Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) published a question and answer session for Sunshine Week that specifically highlighted whistleblowers and their importance in rooting out fraud and corruption. Additionally, anti-corruption and whistleblower advocacy groups hosted a Twitter Spaces event to raise awareness about the power of FOIA and good government.
FOIA & New Guidelines
FOIA was passed in 1966 and provides the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. Under FOIA, federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested by the public unless it falls under an exemption protecting personal privacy, national security, and other interests.
In 2020, WNN hosted a webinar on how to effectively use FOIA. Additionally, FOIA has been essential to WNN’s in-depth exclusive reporting. For example, in February 2021, FOIA allowed WNN to obtain and make available to the public for the first time the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s latest rules and regulations on whistleblower rewards. At that time, WNN also reported on a successful wildlife whistleblower reward case, – the details of which were obtained under FOIA.
AG Garland’s March 15 memo to leaders of federal agencies instructs them “to apply a presumption of openness in administering the FOIA.” The guidelines also “make clear that the Justice Department will not defend nondisclosure decisions that fail to do so.”
Additionally, the new guidelines “emphasize that the proactive disclosure of information is fundamental to the faithful application of the FOIA and note the Justice Department’s efforts to encourage proactive agency disclosures, including by providing more specific criteria regarding how relevant metrics should be reported in agency Annual FOIA Reports, as the Government Accountability Office recommended.”
The new FOIA guidelines also address backlogs, stating that federal departments and agencies should “continue efforts to remove barriers to requesting and accessing government records and to reduce FOIA processing backlogs.”
“At the Justice Department, and across government, our success depends upon the trust of the people we serve. That trust must be earned every day,” said Attorney General Garland in the press release. “For more than fifty years, the Freedom of Information Act has been a vital tool for advancing the principles of open government and democratic accountability that are at the heart of who we are as public servants. Together with our partners across the federal government, the Justice Department will work every day to uphold those principles, which are essential to the rule of law.”
Grassley’s Celebration of Sunshine Week
Sen. Grassley, who is often called the “patron saint” of whistleblower, also released a question and answer page for this year’s Sunshine Week. He points to the importance of the 1986 amendments to the False Claims Act, changes that modernized the law and behind which he was a driving force. The amended False Claims Act “enable[s] 21st century citizens to speak truth to power and are credited with more than two-thirds of the $70 billion returned to the federal treasury.”
“By stepping forward, these patriots protect public health, public safety and taxpayer dollars. It takes a lot of guts to stick one’s neck out to report fraud. That’s why I champion protections for whistleblowers who risk their livelihoods and reputations for telling the truth,” Grassley said in the question and answer session.
“I’m also working to beef up the IRS Whistleblower Awards Program that helps collect taxes owed from tax cheats and keep would-be tax dodgers compliant. As long as I’m in the U.S. Senate, I’ll keep the welcome mat rolled out for whistleblowers to help root out wrongdoing,” Grassley stated. He also talked about “sunshine measures” he’s pushing in Iowa to help “patients, consumers and farmers.”
FOIA Information with Nonprofit Groups
On March 15, Project on Government Oversight (POGO) and National Whistleblower Center (NWC) hosted a live Twitter Spaces event with other FOIA experts. The event focused on providing information about FOIA, highlighting its power but also its shortcomings. During the event, experts also talked about how whistleblowers can best protect themselves. The speakers also talked about reforms they’d make to FOIA.