In the course of researching stories, reporters will often ask their sources directly for documents needed to explain a situation. This is pretty common practice.
When Aura Bogado was talking with a representative from government contractor MVM, she asked to see the company’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, given that MVM was hired by the agency to assist with the transport of immigrant children at the U.S. border. That meant any contract would stipulate the conditions under which those children would need to be housed and cared for, as MVM would be acting as a government entity.
“It’s a growing trend that media attorneys have been seeing: the actions of government have been contracted out,” says Victoria Baranetsky, a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the legal counsel for the Center for Investigative Reporting. “Being able to obtain this kind of information is important as a form of government accountability, despite being in the hands of private contractors.”
Bogado filed a record request, a common practice for obtaining documents, but there was no word from ICE within the 20-day response period. She then filed a more detailed Freedom of Information Act request, making it incredibly focused and specific in requesting just one document – the contract between ICE and MVM – but ICE still hasn’t responded.
The agency hasn’t denied the request, Baranetsky says. It just hasn’t answered at all.
“ICE has not said they’re withholding,” she says of the contract. “Here, ICE did not give a determination. … [Bogado] had previously discussed with the agency, she had gone to the agency and asked for records. They said she would have to formally submit a FOIA request for them. The agent did say they had in their possession and she’d have to go through the process.”
This isn’t a typical FOIA request in which a wide and deep net is cast. “There’s one document we’re talking about that very clearly exists,” Baranetsky says.
Now Reveal, the radio show, podcast and online presence for CIR, is suing for the information.
“Lawsuits like this, they absolutely are a lot of work and they’re costly,” Baranetsky says. “They’re not something we take lightly. This is a circumstance where there’s a clear public interest in the material. It went directly to her reporting. The delay made it rise to the need of litigation.”
Victoria Baranetsky, legal counsel for the Center for Investigative Reporting and a research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, joins producer Michael O’Connell to discuss the need to sue the government when contracts with private companies of particular public interest aren’t provided.