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POIA aims to make public records truly public

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According to a procurement officer in the Transportation Department, SF-LLLs, a disclosure form filed by lobbyists when they help their clients pursue contract or grant awards, are filed away with other contracting documents and "kept in a secure place so no one has access to the them." This, despite the fact that, in fine print on the lower left hand side of the document are the words, "This information will be available for public inspection."

All over Washington, paper and electronic records of documents labeled "public disclosure" or "available for public inspection" and the like are inaccessible to the vast majority of citizens because there is no requirement for government to post this information on the Internet. To address this, Rep. Steve Israel introduced the Public Online Information Act, which would require such documents to be easily accessible--at the click of a mouse.

The act is necessary, because public doesn't always mean available. The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) has financial disclosure forms for top government officials. To get copies, one has to call the office and request them--and no more than six at a time. To get financial disclosure forms for the nine members of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (also known as BRAC) required two requests; to get forms for the top 100 officials of the then incoming Bush Administration (something my former employer, the Center for Public Integrity, undertook in 2001) required 17 separate requests spread out over 17 business days, including 17 separate trips to OGE's New York Avenue headquarters in Washington, D.C.

But at least those documents are accessible with an in-person visit (OGE will also mail the forms--six at a time--to requesters). SF-LLLs are not available for public inspection in any meaningful form, as we learned when we started calling agencies trying to get them. Though we were aware of dozens of cases in which companies had hired outside lobbyists to help them win contracts--the Coast Guard contract won by a joint venture Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman to revamp its vessels being a prime example--we were unable to get our hands on a single one of these documents "available for public inspection."

Were the forms accessible, journalists and the public would be able to distinguish between organizations that win federal money solely by having the best bid, and those that enhance their chances by playing the influence game. Requiring agencies to put these public documents online would open a window into how much of a role lobbyists play in federal contracting and grant making decisions--as well as many other windows into the workings of Washington.