Sunday, March 15, 2009

What happens when government starts getting treated like the public ...

When requesting information about alleged workplace abuses at the Henry’s Turkey Service plant in eastern Iowa, some state government officials discovered firsthand recently what news organizations experience repeatedly: That government employees and agencies drag their feet when asked to release public information that would paint them in a negative light.

Rather than err on the side of openness — which is the intent of both Iowa’s sunshine laws and the federal Freedom of Information Act — government officials have a host of delay tactics at their disposal for keeping public records from public inspection, including riding out the clock, complaining that a request is too broad, claiming blanket exemptions for thousands of documents, failing to acknowledge the original request and, when all else fails on the federal level, citing national security concerns.

We in the media have come to expect such stonewalling, but we had hoped government inspectors would have better luck.

The U.S. Department of Labor, however, has been less than cooperative in telling Iowa officials whether Henry’s Turkey Service had federalcertification to some workers less than minimum wage. Both state and federal authorities are investigating the alleged exploitation of mentally disabled employees who worked for the company and were housed in a dilapidated bunkhouse in Atalissa. Records show the workers were paid as little as 44 cents per hour, plus room and board and the old bunkhouse — which the state fire marshal recently closed.

Gail Sheridan-Lucht, an attorney with Iowa Workforce Development, told a task force on Friday that the labor department refused to provide the information without a formal, written request. Nor would the local office provide a list of other employers in Iowa that have similar certificates.

“We’re treated like the public,” Sheridan-Lucht said.

The Iowa Workforce Development was given the option of filing something called a “sharing letter,” which is a different form of written, formal request. But Sheridan-Lucht said the agency has taken that step and is still waiting for the information.

We at the Press-Citizen applaud the state inspectors for publicly criticizing the federal government’s unwillingness to release public information that would help the inspectors perform their watchdog duties. Now that some Iowa officials are getting a sense of what such stonewalling tastes like, we hope they and other state officials will be less likely to use such tactics when they receive information requests in the future.

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