Today in OpenGov: Is FEMA heading down a memory hole?


In today's edition, we lament that $90,000 in a freezer might not be enough for a corruption conviction any more, the Secret Service isn't tracking presidential visitors to Mar-a-Lago, local investigative reporting is getting a boost, Brazil takes a questionable step towards public financing of elections, and more. 


  • Secret Service says they don't have any Mar-a-Lago visitor logs. "There are no visitor logs or other system of tracking those who visited President Donald Trump at his winter retreat known as Mar-a-Lago, a Secret Service official confirmed Wednesday." As Josh Gerstein reports, the confirmation comes along with a court filing "in response to a FOIA lawsuit brought by three transparency-focused groups: the National Security Archive, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University." (POLITICO)
  • FEMA drops statistics on access to drinking water and electricity in Puerto Rico from website. Jenna Johnson reports that, "As of Wednesday, half of Puerto Ricans had access to drinking water and 5 percent of the island had electricity, according to statistics published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on its Web page documenting the federal response to Hurricane Maria. By Thursday morning, both of those key metrics were no longer on the Web page." A FEMA spokesman noted those stats are still being published on a Puerto Rican government website, but did not explain why they were removed from the FEMA site. (Washington Post)
  • Lobbyists have leveraged Trump connections to pull in $42 million so far this year. "Public Citizen found 44 active lobbyists with ties to Trump or Pence who have contributed nearly $42 million in lobbying revenue and spending through the first half of 2017. The group released its findings in a 58-page report Thursday." (The Hill) Check out the report on Public Citizen's website.
  • Treasury IG approves Mnuchin's $800,000 travel bill, with some reservations. "The U.S. Treasury’s watchdog found Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s use of government aircraft at a cost of about $800,000 was in line with the agency’s rules, but asked for “more rigor” backing up the need for such expenses in the future. (Bloomberg) As stories continue to emerge about members of President Trump's cabinet relying on government and private airplanes for official travel, we think more should follow VA Secretary Shulkin's example on transparency and publish their travel costs online.

washington watch

The status of Open Government Partnership National Action Plans round the world.
  • 4th National Action Plan for Open Government is coming, but questions abound under Trump. Tajha Chappellet-Lanier explains "this year’s plan — the first under the Trump White House — is being created in the context of a presidency that isn’t often perceived to value openness, accountability or responsiveness. So what does that mean for the United States’ commitment to the multilateral Open Government Partnership it helped create?" Some civil society organizations have decided not to participate in the document's drafting. Others, including the Sunlight Foundation, have publicly expressed concerns. (FedScoop)
  • Former Democratic Rep. who stashed $90K in his freezer to be released from prison. "Virginia-based U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis threw out seven of the 10 charges on which [former Louisiana Representative William] Jefferson was convicted, a ruling based in part on the precedent set by the Supreme Court’s decision last year in favor of tossing out the convictions of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell on corruption charges." (POLITICO)
  • In other corruption news, Menendez won't say if he'll step down if found guilty. "Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) refused to say on Thursday whether he would leave his Senate seat if he is convicted on federal corruption charges." (The Hill) It's worth noting that the troublesome Supreme Court ruling in the McDonnell case, which we've been worried about since it was released, may become a factor in the Menendez trial. 

states and cities

  • ProPublica is taking its investigative reporting local. "ProPublica on Thursday announced the launch of its own Local Reporting Network. With funding from a three-year, $3 million grant, the project will fund the salaries and benefits of up to six full-time reporters focused on investigative work in communities with populations of less than 1 million people." (Columbia Journalism Review)
  • Maine moving to digitize court records, but may limit public access. "The judicial committee figuring out how to finally digitize Maine court records has recommended spending up to $15 million on a system that would block the public from accessing most court documents online, even though they are public and available at courthouses." (Maine Public via NFOIC)

around the world

Tabula, a tool that can help journalists extract tables from PDF documents into more useful data.
  • We joined a coalition urging the government of Cameroon to end its Internet shutdown. "We are writing to urgently request that you restore full Internet access in the South West and North West regions of Cameroon. Reports indicate that your government issued orders to block access to the entire Internet on Oct. 1, and thereafter to block social media platforms. This censorship has affected anglophone regions of the country and nearby francophone areas. We implore you to keep the Internet on. This is the second time in 2017 that your government, despite international condemnation, has chosen to deprive millions of citizens of the fundamental right to access and impart information online." Read the full letter via Access Now
  • Australia is getting closer to a national digital identify framework. "The Australian Government is asking industry for final feedback on a framework of standards for the development of an opt-in national digital identity. The framework is part of the Digital Transformation Agency’s (DTA) Govpass digital identity project, which aims to make the process of proving who you are to government services online simple, safe and secure." (OpenGov Asia)
  • Helping journalists build new skills for the digital age. "To survive the existential threat facing traditional journalism, journalists need to build new skills that were not even taught in journalism schools a decade ago. The emergence of  buzz words such as “tech-savvy journalist” and  “data journalist”  in the newsroom is evidence of this shift. To practice journalism, every journalist needs to have digital skills that are imperative for 21st century journalism." (Open Knowledge)
  • Brazil's Congress approves public campaign funding. "Brazil’s lower house of Congress approved the use of taxpayer money to finance election campaigns amid wide-spread disillusionment with the country’s political class in the run-up to 2018 general elections." According to this report by Simone Preissler Iglesias and Bruce Douglas, the level of funding was reduced after public outcry and the program is likely to be implemented in a way that benefits the ruling PMDB and other large parties. (Bloomberg)

one sentence or less

  • Reddit hired its first lobbyists over the summer. (The Hill)
  • Major Republican donors closing their wallets due to lack of legislative accomplishment. (POLITICO)
  • As the SEC was being hacked, its internal security team was having its request for better resources turned down. (Ars Technica)
  • Anil Dash on the need for ethics in technology. (The Atlantic)
  • This White House technology advisor sees "shared services" as the path to efficiency and restored public trust. (Government Executive)


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