It’s Sunshine Week, the annual occasion to promote the importance of open government, transparency, and an informed public — crucial elements of democratic society. One of the most vital tools for the preservation of our democracy is the Freedom of Information Act. Recent years have laid bare the law’s weaknesses and erosions, and we’ve outlined seven key reforms for renewing FOIA’s promise of ensuring that the American public has timely access to important information about what our government is doing.
State governments also have certain open record obligations, and the Associated Press reported last week on how the governors of South Dakota, Arkansas, California, Massachusetts, Michigan, and New Jersey have evaded their states’ sunshine laws. And this week, we’re also continuing to shine a light on the actions of state governments across the country to narrow access to our democracy or to use public office to serve the few.
We’ll start in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis continues to take heat for his select “pop-up” distribution of coronavirus vaccines in predominantly white, wealthy, and conservative areas, now the subject of a federal complaint filed with the Department of Health and Human Services. The DeSantis administration’s lack of transparency in its handling of the pandemic has been an ongoing issue, from inequitable vaccine distribution to concerns about the state being less than forthcoming when it comes to sharing data. This week, we expanded our investigation into the potentially favoritism-laced doling out of vaccines, and we published documents that contain communications from the early months of the pandemic showing that the Florida health department for weeks resisted using the CDC’s data-tracking system.
Conservative Florida lawmakers have also advanced a bill that would make voting by mail harder and would ban ballot drop boxes — despite some of those same lawmakers’ public acknowledgment that the 2020 election went smoothly. Those efforts to limit democratic participation are being matched in dozens of other states. Texas Republicans are rolling out a slew of bills limiting early voting and tightening ID requirements. In Wisconsin, a top Republican donor is suing to prevent municipal clerks from using ballot drop boxes or fixing absentee ballots. Kansas’ SB 292 would restrict community ballot collection. And a Georgia bill would limit weekend voting hours, hampering “Souls to the Polls” events conducted by Black churches.
Here are some other important stories from various states this week:
Wheeler’s and Scalia’s Swing State Travels
In the run-up to the 2020 election, multiple high-level Trump administration officials took well-publicized trips to swing states, raising concerns about violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from using government resources to influence elections. We filed a number of FOIA requests after those trips, and uncovered records showing that more than $60,000 was spent in staff travel and expenses for trips taken by former EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and former Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia. Notably, this does not include the cabinet members’ own travel costs.
The annual awards that recognize “the year’s worst in government transparency” are out. The Foilies collect the most ridiculous stories from journalists, activists, and watchdogs who have filed public records requests only to be met with outrageous redactions or outlandish fees. This year, two of our dubious encounters made the list — take a look.
Eight killed, including six Asian women, in Atlanta-area spa shootings; suspect arrested after manhunt (Washington Post)
The most radical Republicans aren’t in Congress. They’re in the statehouses. (Mother Jones)
Postal Service finds no evidence of mail ballot fraud in Pa. case cited by top Republicans (Washington Post)
IRS delays filing deadline to May 15, as IRS grapples with a backlog of 24 million unprocessed tax returns (Washington Post)
Some on Wall Street profited off Texas blackouts. In a private call, a top regulator pledged he would try to protect their windfall. (Texas Monthly)
Lara Trump-linked dog rescue charity spent $2m on Trump properties (Guardian)
They ‘love this country’: Republican senator defends rioters (CNN)
Army initially pushed to deny District’s request for National Guard before Jan. 6 (Washington Post)
As Cuomo reels, pleas for political support come from his vaccine czar (New York Times)
DOJ seeks to build large conspiracy case against Oath Keepers for Jan. 6 riot (Washington Post)
Trump’s incomplete border wall is in pieces that could linger for decades (New York Times)
Trump’s Florida resort touted as potential gambling destination (Washington Post)
Part of Investigation: