Monday, August 23, 2010

CRG Presents: Using Open Records to Advance Open Government.

The no-bid contract for Talgo has been in the news much over the past months. At CRG Network, we like to go beyond what is just in the news and dig into the public records to investigate what really happens behind closed doors. In this blog post we’ll show you how we go about our work and what we found. Keep in mind that anyone can do this research – you have the right to ask for copies of what your government produces with your tax dollars!

To start off, here’s one of the earliest documents we pulled up on the Talgo deal. When we requested documents from the Commerce Department on Talgo, here’s one of the first we got:

Here we obtained a copy of an email from Dick Leinenkugel, then Secretary of Commerce, to what appears to be several family members about Governor Doyle’s trip to Spain looking for jobs.

Not every email contains explosive revelations about government corruption, but each document can be reviewed to see what happens with our government.

A few months after the prior email, a deal was made with Talgo where Wisconsin would spend $47 million with Talgo. On July 31, 2009, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported:
A Spanish train company landed a $47 million state contract without competitive bidding, because using its trains will cut the cost of building a high-speed rail network by hundreds of millions of dollars, state officials say.
The no-bid deal was allowed under a 12-year-old law that exempts all of the state's passenger rail contracts from normal bidding rules.
Members of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee will vote Tuesday on whether to let the state Department of Transportation borrow the money to buy two 14-car train sets from Talgo.
Gov. Jim Doyle announced last month that the state would buy the trains for Amtrak's Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha line, with an option to buy two more trains if the state wins federal funding to extend the route with a 110-mph line from Milwaukee to Madison. The 420-seat trains would replace two aging 350-seat trains and boost capacity on the Hiawatha, where ridership shot up 24% last year.
Around that time, another set of emails were sent out within the Commerce Department discussing the Talgo Deal. In this email “Nippon Sharyo is peeved that they weren’t given an opportunity to bid on the project.”

As we’ve showed, we’re able to look and see what our government is doing with our tax dollars. Here’s another result from our Open Records Requests relating to the Talgo deal.

In this email, Nora Friend of Talgo is sharing an article from The Cap Times: Your Progressive Voice to Secretary Leinenkugel telling about the favorable publicity the train deal is receiving.

However, that same day, Secretary Leinenkugel replies telling about how talk radio is presenting the opposite side of the story.

What do these emails mean? For one, media attention is important to government – they are paying attention to what is being said by both sides of the aisle. In our next excerpt, we’ll show how the train company discusses with the government how they should interact with the media.

From reading this email, we’re able to see how people perceive issues. Understanding how a government official views a topic is important to understanding how to communicate with the official on the topic. If a government official is concerned about certain things such as bipartisanship, or negative press, a citizen can use those issues to appeal to the official. In addition, one can learn what media sources (in this case a government official is getting his or her news from.

Now we’ll transition from looking at Open Records from the Commerce Department, to results from our Open Records requests of Governor Jim Doyle. With Open Records Requests, it is usually helpful to request documents from multiple government agencies. In the case of the Talgo deal, multiple government agencies are involved including the Commerce Department and the Governor’s Office. Here’s an email sent March 29, 2010 from Talgo to the Governor’s Office and the reply:

Emails such as these point out the issues that government officials are dealing with, in this case, what the effect would be of the USDOT increasing the required “Buy America” percentage of the trains Wisconsin would be buying.

In this email, Nora Friend of Talgo is sharing “talking points” with the Governor’s Office of why this proposal would be a bad idea. She cites that there will be “disruption in the vendors selected” for the train, and that “some of those vendors are coming from IL also where Mr. LaHood is from.” Mr. LaHood, by the way, is the Secretary of the Department of Transportation, the official in charge of the USDOT.

So by this time you may be wondering how does CRG get all these documents about what happens inside government. This is done through an “Open Records Request.” An Open Records Request is a request made to a government agency requesting copies of records. Under state law, anyone can request copies of government records. Here’s an Open Records Request we submitted to the Governor’s Office on May 20, 2010:

With a request like this, we were able to obtain the records that we showed you in our last post.

So let’s say you’ve sent off an Open Records Request like we did and showed in our last excerpt. What happens next? Here’s an email we received on July 28th, 2010 in response to a request we sent to the Commerce Department:

In this email, they acknowledge our request, and discuss what they are able to produce. They note which records they have been able to locate, as well as which records that they were unable to locate. In addition they note the cost of the records request. As you can see they are charging us $0.25 per page for 55 pages of emails. These emails included some that we posted earlier.

Sometimes you may receive many documents back in an Open Records Request. In our next excerpt, we’ll show you what that may look like with an email we received from Susan Crawford, Chief Legal Counsel for Governor Jim Doyle to our request for documents relating to the Talgo purchase.

They sent to us a copy of our request (that we posted above), as well as a collection of documents

Within the documents they included a cover letter describing their response:

Within this document they “redacted mobile telephone numbers of Talgo officials.” They are allowed to use a “balancing test” to determine which information can be redacted or removed, but as they note we are allowed to appeal their decision to either a district attorney or to the attorney general.

Depending on what information they removed, it may or may not be profitable to appeal their decision.

In our search for information on the Talgo deal, we requested documents from the Office of the Governor as well as the Commerce Department. In addition, we requested documents from the Office of Mayor Tom Barrett. Because the Talgo deal involved the City of Milwaukee, we wanted to see what role the city had in the situation.

However, several of our requests have not been answered as of August 4th, 2010 as you can see from this message we received from Barrett’s office.

To conduct a thorough investigation, sometimes repeat requests are necessary. On August 5th, 2010, we submitted a request to the Commerce Department for additional records on the Talgo Deal from May 20, 2010 to the present. Sometimes multiple open record requests are helpful, because after the initial request, new documents may be created.

Be sure to log the confirmation emails so that later on you can confirm that the agency did receive your emails.

In our final excerpt in this report, we will be sharing the reply we received from the City of Milwaukee. As we showed earlier, we sent an Open Records Request to the City of Milwaukee for records related to Talgo. Here’s the email we received back:

Attached to the email was this letter:

As we showed in previous responses, other government agencies charged fairly inexpensive fees to research the documents and provide them to us. However, the Office of Mayor Tom Barrett is charging us $965 to produce these records that we are looking for. As they stated, they calculate that the “average hourly rate of the individuals who will be conducting the search is $64.31,” and that this search will be fifteen hours long.

To compare these costs of research to other agencies, the Commerce Department charged us only $30 for one hour of research, while the Mayor is charging $965 for fifteen hours of research.

As we dig up more documents in our investigation in pursuit of open government we will be posting them here to share with you, our readers.