Tag Archives: MuckRock

A journalist fights the power for public information


For more than three and a half years I’ve been fighting to access evidence from a trial that sent a man to prison for four consecutive life terms. The defendant in that case—Dr. Paul Volkman, the “Pill Mill Killer,” the “largest physician dispenser of Oxycodone in the US from 2003-2005”—went to college and medical school with my dad, and I’m trying to write a book about him.

Now, it might sound odd that I, or anyone in this country, would have to fight for access to trial evidence that’s already been shown in open court. Doesn’t the Sixth Amendment guarantee all citizens a public trial? Haven’t landmark court decisions established that trial evidence can’t be un-published? And, if all else fails, doesn’t the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) offer transparency insurance? After all, no one administering the law with President Obama’s 2009 “presumption in favor of disclosure” memo in mind would withhold previously published trial evidence, would they?

The answer to each of these questions is “You would think so.” But more than four and a half years after Volkman’s trial ended (the verdict was delivered May 10, 2011, a date tattooed on my brain), the vast majority of the evidence hasn’t been released. Judges, clerks, and prosecutors have all denied my requests. And when I filed a FOIA request with the Department of Justice in February 2012, the events that ensued were, in the words of MuckRock, a “nightmare.” That’s why—with the help of the Rhode Island ACLU and pro bono attorneys Neal McNamara and Jessica Jewell from Nixon Peabody—I’m suing the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In a sense, my case revolves around a simple question: can the government seal off a trial—in this case, for reasons related to medical privacy—once the jury has been dismissed and the defendant hauled to prison? I say “No.” The government, apparently, says “Yes.”

And, for now, let’s stick with the theme of simplicity. Because, as this lawsuit trudges on, there’s really only one document you need to see. It’s a 62-page packet filed “for review and consideration by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals” by the Ohio US attorney’s office on February 19, 2013.

In February of 2013, Volkman was fighting to have his conviction overturned, while the Ohio US attorney (the office that had successfully prosecuted him) was fighting to make sure the conviction stuck. With this 62-page packet, prosecutors presented a curated selection—16 exhibits, out of more than 200 shown at trial—of their most powerful evidence. Unlike any of the other trial exhibits, the packet was uploaded to PACER, making it accessible to the public.

That’s worth repeating: by submitting this packet to the appellate court, prosecutors published trial evidence. And they did so with very few redactions. Only a handful of black bars appear in the packet to cover Social Security numbers and birthdays on death certificates, and—curiously—the last name of one of Volkman’s victims (but not three others) on prescription slips and medical-exam reports. Mostly, the trial exhibits are published in their pristine, un-redacted natural state.

Mind you, these are the same prescription slips, death certificates, and reports that were withheld or aggressively redacted when I asked the DOJ for them in 2012. And these are the same prescription slips, death certificates, and reports that the Rhode Island US attorney (which is handling the lawsuit for the DEA) withheld or aggressively redacted when the office attempted to settle my case with two new “releases” on July 29 and August 31, 2015.

Which brings me to the one thing to remember about my case. Even if you ignore the Sixth Amendment, pro-courtroom-transparency court decisions, and Obama’s “presumption in favor of disclosure” FOIA memo, the government’s stance in this case still doesn’t make any sense. Because, as the 62-page packet from 2013 shows, the government is currently defending a privacy line they’ve already broken.

Four and a half years is a long time to wait for the release of this trial evidence. And I’ve come to view my FOIA case as a symbol of a lot of things: bureaucratic incompetence; Obama-era bullying and intimidation of journalists; and the disturbing fact that the US government, in 2015, can’t live up to some of this country’s founding principles. But, as with so many governmental failures, this is also a story about wasted taxpayer dollars. After receiving my FOIA request in 2012, DEA employees spent untold hours painstakingly redacting pages of trial evidence that had already been shown in open court. (Six hundred seventy-four days passed between my first partial FOIA-response release in May 2013, and my last, in March 2015.) And, right now, it seems there are people in the Rhode Island US attorney’s office working to make sure this previously published evidence (a chunk of which was re-published, in 2013) doesn’t see the light of day.

These are not top-secret documents. This is evidence that sent a man to prison. This is evidence from a case that traveled all the way to the US Supreme Court. This is evidence that was presented in every US citizen’s name, since we were all plaintiffs in “the United States of America vs. Paul Volkman.” Welcome to the “most transparent administration in history.”

Philip Eil is a freelance journalist and former news editor at the now-closed Providence Phoenix. His work has appeared in publications including The Atlantic, Vice, Salon, Rhode Island Monthly, and the Jewish Daily Forward. Email him at philip dot edward dot eil at gmail dot com and find him on Twitter at @phileil.

Holding campus police departments accountable

Photo (cc) by xx. Some rights reserved.

Photo (cc) by jakubsabata. Some rights reserved.

Should police reports at private colleges and universities be considered public records in the same way that those at public colleges and in cities and towns are? You would think so. After all, as Shawn Musgrave reports for the public-records website MuckRock:

Sworn campus police may carry weapons, make arrests and use force, just like any other officer. Statute grants special state police “the same power to make arrests as regular police officers” for crimes committed on property owned or used by their institutions. Particularly in Boston, campus borders are difficult to trace, and some of the most populous areas lie within university police jurisdiction.

Yet because police departments at private institutions of higher learning are non-governmental agencies, they are not subject to the state’s notoriously weak public-records law, which requires police departments to show its log of incidents and arrests to any member of the public upon request.

Campus police departments do not operate entirely in the dark — as Musgrave notes, they must make certain records public under the federal Clery Act. And he found that many departments provided their logs when he asked for them. But privately employed police officers exercise the same powers as those working for the public, and they should be subject to the same disclosure laws.

Musgrave’s report, posted on Sept. 15, has been gathering steam. Today his story is on the front page of The Boston Globe, which has long had a relationship with MuckRock. Earlier it was flagged by Boston magazine and by Boston.com.

As Musgrave reports, state Rep. Kevin Honan, a Brighton Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would bring campus police departments and other privately employed police officers under the umbrella of the public records law. It’s a bill that has failed several times previously. But perhaps increased public scrutiny will lead to a better result.

Thinking through the Globe’s multi-site strategy

BG frontThis post has also been published at WGBH News.

After I posted an item yesterday speculating that The Boston Globe’s lower paywall might eventually lead to the end of the paper’s two-site strategy, Jack Gately tweeted at me that the Globe actually seems to be going in the opposite direction. With the addition of its BetaBoston site, unveiled on Monday, the paper now has three.

And that’s just the beginning. Soon the Globe will launch a separate site for all things Catholic, in part so that it can showcase its prized new religion reporter, John Allen. Incumbent religion reporter Lisa Wangsness will continue. And yesterday editor Brian McGrory announced that Boston.com community engagement editor and former metro editor Teresa Hanafin will edit the new venture.

So is this a splintering of the Globe’s identity? I don’t think so. And today’s front page may serve as a good indication of how the different sites will work together. The lead story, on private repo companies that are using license-plate scanners, is from BetaBoston, and was written by Shawn Musgrave. He, in turn, is the editor of MuckRock, an independent public-records project that is affiliated with the Globe. (Here’s a 2012 interview I did with MuckRock founder Michael Morisy for the Nieman Journalism Lab. Morisy is also the editor of BetaBoston.)

What the Globe seems to be embracing is a hub-and-spoke model. The Globe, in print and online, is the hub. Spokes reach out to specialty projects such as BetaBoston, the entertainment site BDCWire (part of the Globe’s Radio BDC project), the religion site and whatever else may be in the works. It’s similar to how The New York Times handles Dealbook, or how The Washington Post interacts with Wonkblog, both before and after the departure of Ezra Klein. The idea is to foster semi-free-standing projects that generate a lot of content, some of which migrates along the spokes and into the hub.

That’s quite different from the business strategy of offering the paid BostonGlobe.com site and the free Boston.com. Those are intended as two entirely different ventures, and McGrory’s memo yesterday made it clear that they are going to be separated even more going forward.

How empty space led to experimentation at the Globe

Creative technologist Chris Marstall at the Boston Globe Idea Lab.

Creative technologist Chris Marstall at the Boston Globe Idea Lab.

The New York Times has a terrific story today about how the downsized Boston Globe — a sister paper — has turned over a chunk of unused space to entrepreneurs, its online radio station, RadioBDC, and even a pilot for a television series.

As Times reporter Christine Haughney observes, the experimental venture by Globe publisher Christopher Mayer has already paid off in the form of a partnership with Michael Morisy, the co-founder of the public-records website MuckRock.

Dominating the space is the Idea Lab, where a small group of smart young people try out new ideas, such as different approaches to tracking Globe stories on social media and a wall-size group of screens that plots Instagram photos on a map of Boston. The latter ended up playing a role in the Globe’s recent interactive series on life in the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood of Dorchester, “68 Blocks: Life, Death, Hope.”

I’ve brought several groups of students to tour the Idea Lab. For anyone interested in the future of journalism, it’s one of the most interesting places you can visit.

Photo © 2012 by Megan Lieberman and used by permission.

MuckRock.com and the potential power of crowdfunding

Screen Shot 2012-12-18 at 7.58.38 PMThis interview was previously published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

The first time I heard of Michael Morisy and MuckRock.com was in 2010, after the site was targeted by a bureaucrat working for Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.

It seems that MuckRock, using the state’s open records law, had obtained information about how food stamps were being used in grocery stores. The data, which did not name any individual food-stamp recipients, had been lawfully requested and lawfully obtained. But that didn’t stop said bureaucrat from threatening Morisy and his tech partner, Mitchell Kotler, with fines and even imprisonment if they refused to remove the documents from their site.

They refused. And the bureaucrat said it had all been a mistake.

Now Morisy is preparing to expand MuckRock’s mission of filing freedom-of-information requests with various government agencies and posting them online for all to see. The just-launched Freedom of the Press Foundation has identified MuckRock as one of four news organizations that will benefit from its system of crowdsourced donations. The best-known of the four is WikiLeaks.

The foundation’s board is a who’s who of media activists, including Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow, Josh Stearns of Free Press and the journalist Glenn Greenwald, now with the Guardian.

“The Freedom of the Press Foundation can be a first step away from the edge of a cliff,” writes Dan Gillmor, author of “We the Media” and “Mediactive.” “But it needs to be recognized and used by as many people as possible, as fast as possible. And journalists, in particular, need to offer their support in every way. This is ultimately about their future, whether they recognize it or not. But it’s more fundamentally about all of us.”

What follows is a lightly edited email interview I conducted with Morisy about MuckRock, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and what comes next.

Q: Tell me a little bit about MuckRock and its origins.

A: I’d been really frustrated that we hadn’t seen much innovation in newsgathering generated by journalistic organizations. You see lots of innovations in how stories are told, but they’ve been generated by companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram — all wonderful organizations, but ones which generate news as a byproduct, and where the journalistic function is by far secondary to business considerations. My co-founder and I wanted to create a startup where creating news was a core part of the business, and where the news was both user-generated and -directed as well as verified.

Since requests on MuckRock come from — and are paid for by — our users, we are able to align our business and editorial goals almost perfectly. We don’t sell advertising, we don’t put up paywalls. We just help people investigate the issues they want to, and then share those results with the world.

We’ve know been growing as a business and as an editorial operation for three years, with a part-time news editor and two fantastic interns.

Q: What sorts of projects are you involved in today?

A: Our biggest project to date is a partnership with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called the Drone Census, which has broken a lot of major stories around the country. We let anyone submit an agency’s information and then we follow up with a public records request. So far we’ve submitted 263 requests to state, local, and federal agencies, the vast majority of which were suggested by the public. And it’s helped shed more light on a program that police departments and drone manufacturers are very purposefully keeping quiet.

We’ve also gotten to cover some really interesting local stories, such as getting the late Boston mayor Kevin White’s FBI file and taking an inside look at the timing of a drug raid, as well as national stories.

Q: What is the nature of your relationship with the Boston Globe?

A: MuckRock was invited to be part of the Globe Lab‘s incubator program a little over a year ago. We’ve received free office space and, most important, a good mailbox to receive the dozens of responses we get back every day. It’s also given us a chance to bounce ideas back and forth with their technology and editorial teams, and we’re in the early stages of a collaborative project with them.

They also recently launched The Hive, a section focused on startups in the Boston area. Given my experience running one and my editorial background, when they were looking for someone to manage and report for that section, I was a natural fit and thrilled to be invited to cover startups in the area. It’s a dream job, and it means I now have two desks, and often wear two hats inside the same building.

Q: How did you get involved in the Freedom of the Press Foundation?

A: Trevor Timm has been our main point of contact with the EFF working on the drone project, and he’s been absolutely great to work with. He reached out to us about a week ago and said that he was working on a new venture to help crowdfund investigative journalism projects, and we were honored to be thought of. It turns out he is the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, so we got lucky to be working with the right people.

Q: Do you have a goal for how much money you’re hoping to raise through the foundation? What kinds of projects would you like to fund if you’re successful?

A: We’re kind of going into this with an open mind and a hopeful heart. Any amount raised is greatly appreciated, but this will help jumpstart several new projects similar in size and scope to the drone effort, which has had an amazing response, including nods from the New York Times and many other outlets. It may also give us the flexibility to fund important stories that maybe are not as sexy. We were really interested in funding an investigation into MBTA price jumps for the disabled, for example, but our crowdfunding efforts on Spot.us are essentially dead on arrival. Having a reserve will allow us to take gambles on stories like that without having to choose between making rent and breaking news.