ASMA KHALID, HOST:
The media’s primary role in a functioning democracy is to hold the government accountable and keep citizens informed. And in order to do that, a free press needs access to certain documents, from FBI investigations to court filings, which brings us to the reporter’s best friend or biggest headache. Those are the requests they file under the Freedom Of Information Act, or FOIA. That’s where reporters hoping to dig into a story ask a government agency for information that they want. And then they wait and wait and wait and wait for weeks, for months and, in the case of Bruce Alpert, 12 years.
The then-New Orleans Times-Picayune writer filed his request in 2009 and got his response recently, after he’d retired. He’s now a freelance reporter for Kaiser Health News and joins us on the line. Good morning.
BRUCE ALPERT: Good morning.
KHALID: So, Bruce, take us back to the story that started all of this. What were you reporting?
ALPERT: I was reporting on the corruption case involving a New Orleans congressman, William J. Jefferson, who was accused of assisting businesses get business in Africa. But there was, according to the government, a price to be paid for that. And that that was – that resulted in a very lengthy investigation trial and eventual sentencing and then – which was the longest sentence ever for a congressman – 13 years, though it was eventually narrowed down to 5 1/2.
KHALID: And so walk us through who you were trying to get the info from.
ALPERT: Mainly the FBI, which obviously did the investigation.
KHALID: And what did you ask for in your Freedom Of Information request?
ALPERT: Well, I wanted documents highlighting the investigation, what steps they took, how they conducted their searches of homes and government offices. I wanted to know how they got the cooperating witness to secretly tape conversations and how the hundred thousand dollars that the FBI filmed Jefferson receiving from this witness ended up in his freezer – 90,000 of it anyway.
KHALID: So what did you get, anything explosive? Did it seem like the way it made sense?
ALPERT: No. You know, it’s so long after the case, some information that would have been a more important story, you know, 10 years ago really isn’t anymore. And so much of what they sent me was redacted. And, for instance, there’s a page that begins, C.W. told the FBI agents. And the rest of that page is totally blank.
KHALID: I mean, the FOIA system is, in theory, supposed to allow for a level of transparency. And it is really the the lifeblood of investigative journalism. And it’s not just for journalists, right? I mean, any citizen could theoretically file these requests.
ALPERT: Absolutely. And, you know, a lot of the benefit of FOIA comes from advocacy groups and businesses that are trying to understand why the government might have undertaken a regulatory approach that they might disagree with. So they look for the background documents from FOIA. So it’s certainly not only reporters.
KHALID: And it does to me raise questions about how the overall system is working that’s supposed to provide this level of transparency.
ALPERT: It is not working. I mean, I did speak to several First Amendment experts. And they say waits of many months and years is not uncommon, though I was told that none of these folks (laughter) had heard of a 12-year wait. The law is broken, in the words of one of the First Amendment attorneys we spoke to. And I can’t disagree with her.
KHALID: That’s reporter Bruce Alpert, who got a response to his Freedom Of Information request, finally after 12 years of waiting. Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today. Appreciate it.
ALPERT: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.