FEMA Using FOIA to dig itself into a deeper hole

By Mark Tapscott

Dec 2, 2005

If there were an award for the least popular federal agency, the Federal
Emergency Management Agency would probably be a near-unanimous choice,
thanks to the barrage of negative media it received during the Hurricane
Katrina debacle.
Maybe that is why FEMA is using the Freedom of Information Act to keep
behind closed doors the results of its own customer satisfaction survey on
how well the agency¹s inspectors did their jobs following hurricanes
Charley, Frances, Jeanne and Ivan. The way FEMA is doing it points to why
one of the most frequently used and abused FOIA exemptions ought to be
seriously tightened up or repealed outright.

 The agency sent questionnaires to 10,953 of the 316,000 people who received
FEMA home inspections following those storms. The inspections are used to
determine which homeowners and businesses get how many federal tax dollars
for rebuilding. More than 2,900 of the questionnaires were returned to FEMA.

 But when the Fort Myers News-Press asked FEMA for the data and
documentation for the survey, the agency said no, citing the FOIA¹s
confidentiality and pre-decisional exemptions. Neither exemption is
appropriate to the FEMA case, according to FOIA experts.

News-Press Senior Writer Melanie Payne said ³the information FEMA wouldn't
release to The News-Press included survey score summaries, score
calculations, results and customer comments. The agency would reveal only
the number of surveys sent out and the number of responses received.²

 The confidentiality exemption is mainly meant to protect legitimate trade
secrets of private companies doing business with the government. Only in a
fantasy world could FEMA seriously argue that how the two companies it paid
$150 million to do the inspections is a trade secret more deserving of
protection than the taxpayers¹ right to know how FEMA is doing its job.

 The pre-decisional exemption allows federal bureaucrats to exempt from
public disclosure documents like memoranda sent by subordinates to
decision-making government officials seeking needed information and

 This exemption is being used more and more frequently by government
employees, according to a recent study by the Coalition of Journalists for
Open Government. The coalition¹s study found a three-fold increase in
agencies citing this exemption since 2000.

 Perhaps we should not be surprised that FEMA would turn to the
pre-decisional exemption. FEMA is part of the bureaucratic monstrosity known
as the Department of Homeland Security. The coalition¹s study found a 19.1
percent increase in use of the exemption overall by DHS officials, the third
highest increase across the government since 2000.

 Another reason FEMA officials don¹t want to release the survey data may be
the fact the agency has a history of waste and corruption that Florida
newspapers in particular have been aggressively reporting in recent years.

 Last year, for example, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel found lots of
folks in Miami who were more than happy to receive FEMA checks in the
aftermath of Hurricane Frances. Only problem is Frances hardly touched the
Miami-Dade County area, so damage there was extremely light, consisting
mostly of downed telephone polls and the like.

 That didn¹t stop FEMA from handing out disaster recovery checks that were
then used to buy more than 5,000 televisions allegedly destroyed by Frances,
as well as 1,440 air conditioners, 1,360 twin beds, 1,311 washers and
dryers, and 831 dining sets, according to the Sun-Sentinel, which used the
FOIA in its investigation.

 These are not isolated incidents. FEMA waste and inefficiency has a long
history, according to Citizens Against Government Waste. Remember Hurricane
Andrew back in 1992: CAGW notes:

³Three days after Hurricane Andrew hit, FEMA was nowhere to be found; when
it did arrive, mobile hospitals could not set up, and food and water
distribution centers were overwhelmed.

³Besides a delayed response, FEMA awarded hurricane damage funding for areas
away from the disaster.  For instance, more than $29 million in flood relief
was given to Mobile, Alabama even after local officials said the county
suffered no damage.²

The lesson here is that FEMA¹s problems mirror those of government agencies
in general. Big bureaucracies inevitably spawn big scandals involving waste,
fraud and corruption that dwarfs anything found in the private sector.

That is why it is vital that conservatives, libertarians and other friends
of individual liberty recognize that measures like the FOIA are essential
because they keep the crooks and incompetents in government on notice that
they are being watched.

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