Freedom of Information Dead on Arrival — Another Covid Casualty

By Janet Phelan

“Democracy Dies in Darkness”–Washington Post
“It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”–Bob Dylan

Another fallout from the Covid crisis is that you can no longer reach public officials and bureaucrats. Phone calls go unanswered and there seems to be a pervasive disinterest in responding to emails now.

This is significant in terms of transparency and the public’s right to be informed. What we are seeing now in daily media reports, wildly contradicting each other as to the nature of the Covid crisis, is compounded by the unaccountability engendered by public officials, who seem to have discarded any semblance of concern about “the public’s right to know.”

Government, as originally conceptualized, was to protect the governed from external attacks. The earliest manifestations of government, tribal government, emerged as family units banded together for a greater protection than a mere clan or family group could provide. The tribal leaders were not despots—indeed, they would be unseated if they evidenced those qualities—and whether one was a singular head or part of a council of elders, a leader was tasked with serving the needs of the community. Later, city-states emerged and gradually, the governors moved away from the community that they governed, not so much in physical location but in adherence to the emerging group of leadership. An “elite” was born—those who led.

The separation of the leaders from the led has now become a fact of so-called democratic forms of government, as well as of oligarchies and monarchies. And this was nowhere more evident in President Trump’s promise to “Drain the Swamp.” The Swamp would be those embedded in government who were not serving the interests of the governed, but rather serving an entity unto itself.

The first hints that Covid-19 was going to kill off whatever crumbs of accountability still remained were evident early on in the crisis. Back in March, California Governor Newsom’s intent to suspend the California Public Records Act during the Covid crisis was first reported. In March, the city of San Diego announced that it was suspending the government’s necessity to respond to Covid-related PRA requests. While the article linked here states that no other cities had launched such measures, it appears that indeed many levels of government have cut off access to public records.

As reported in the Los Angeles Times, also in March:

The city of Fresno suspended “immediate responses” to public records requests on Tuesday after the city declared a state of emergency, according to an email from the city attorney’s office. The city will resume responding to requests once the emergency declaration ends.

In the Bay Area, the city of San Leandro is closed to the public and only staffing “essential employees” because of a shelter-in-place order from Alameda County, according to an email from the city manager’s office. The city will need an additional 45 days to respond to records requests after the order is lifted, the email said.

And the city clerk’s office in Fremont told a journalist this week it would not be able to accept public records requests until its offices reopened following an emergency declaration there.

The unification of the leaders into an increasingly unaccountable group, separate from the led, has become even more obvious with this public health crisis. The public’s need to know has never been so strong, and apart from the daily barrage of contradictory news, we now must realize that we are also being barred from previously accessible information.

Here are a few cases of which I have personal knowledge:

GUARDIANSHIP ISSUE AT INTERNATIONAL TRIBUNAL

Debra Ashby filed a Request for Precautionary Measures with the IACHR over a year ago, citing the endangerment of her father under a court authorized guardianship. The Inter American Commission on Human Rights is an arm of the Organization of American States and has a legally binding mandate to act when there are allegations that state parties to the governing treaty have violated the treaty mandates. Her tracking number for the report is PM 19-492. I have emailed the IACHR at their various email addresses several times, trying to get an update on their progress in her matter. No one replies. When one telephones them, one gets the “Out-Of-The-Office-Due-to-Covid” message. I also emailed directly the head of the IACHR, Paulo Abrao, with no response.

The IACHR is less than friendly to me, after I exposed one of their former Commissioners, James Cavallaro of Stanford University, as apparently taking bribes to throw cases. And this sort of retaliation against journalists is becoming regular fare. Julian Assange is the most public face to retaliation, which is certainly not confined to him.

FBI FILE REQUEST

Equally, after my FOIA for my FBI file produced a flurry of bizarre responses, none of which involved producing my actual file, I emailed their FOIA mediator, as she had previously sent me emails assuring me that her office could intervene. I guess you can figure out what happened here—No Reply. And forget about telephoning her—everybody is working at home now, due to Covid-19. So the phone calls go to a messaging system, apparently to die there.

SECRET SERVICE INVESTIGATION

After an extensive interview a couple years back by Special Agent Stephen Lamb of the Riverside Office of the Secret Service concerning my knowledge of the activities of former professional fiduciary Melodie Scott, I became uncomfortable with the verbiage by the Head of that office, Hank Price, and asked for an update on the investigation.  But not only can I not reach anyone at the Secret Service field office, but no one there, no one at the US Attorney’s office in Los Angeles and no one at the HQ of the Secret Service will deign to answer my emails. Most recently, I emailed Mason Brayman, at the media office for the Secret Service, requesting to speak with someone at an administrative level who could let me know if the investigation is still extant.

But Brayman is MIA, at least as far as I can tell.

CDC FOIA GAMES

Back in April of this year, I filed a FOIA with the CDC requesting a racial breakdown of Covid victims. The initial response, by a Paula Thomas with the CDC, was appropriate and timely. She informed me that the records I had requested would be supplied by June 9.

But then something went on tilt. The records were not supplied and requests for an update were ignored. Finally on June 24, a Carolyn Okpewho at the CDC assured me that they were working on my request but couldn’t tell me when it would be fulfilled.

I then discovered that the CDC had already published this data.

Indeed it appeared that some media outlets were running this story in late May.

Brookings had published the data on June 16.

Alarmed, I re-contacted the CDC and asked why they were withholding already published data. In a subsequent email, I stated my intent to file a complaint with the Inspector General for HHS.

The very next day, I received a letter via email that the records were ready.

Apparently, the CDC has reverted to a form of tribal governance and responds best to explicit threats.

RETALIATION OR?

Back in 2011, I had interviewed two CDC honchos, Lori Bane and Von Roebuck. I was attempting to discern the numbers of BSL-3s and 4s in the United States.

The subsequent article published in Activist Post, reveals that Bane and Roebuck prevaricated and attempted to give me inadequate and false information on the prevalence of these labs.

Another contact with Dr. George Korch of HHS and Dr. Scott Dowell of CDC at the Biological Weapons Convention in Geneva, also in 2011, resulted in revelations that these two top docs were also reluctant to admit to the knowledge of high level triage plans in the event of a pandemic. These triage plans would exclude the elderly and infirm from getting life saving treatment.

I did not mention in this article that Dr. Dowell behaved in a threatening manner towards me when I approached him with questions about the triage plans, demanding to know my name and my press affiliation in a manner which bordered on blatant intimidation.

So one does begin to wonder if the CDC is reacting based on prior contact and “blacklisting.” The generalized reluctance now by government to abide by transparency dictates seems to be enhanced by more particularized concerns.

Based on the perception that some sort of “blacklisting” may have figured in here, I filed a FOIA with the CDC in late June, requesting records particularly pertaining to me. I received a response confirming receipt of my request, which did not state when the records would be available.

Emails requesting follow up on the FOIA status have been ignored.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation,

While COVID-19 will certainly interrupt some of our normal expectations, it is essential that our democracy continue to function through these hard times. That means ensuring that the public can understand and hold officials accountable for the decisions they make in the halls of power while we’re all stuck at home.

As concerns begin to escalate that Covid-19 represents a permanent state of affairs and that we may not ever return to “normal,” the indications are mounting that public awareness and oversight have also been a victim of the coronavirus.

Janet Phelan is an investigative journalist and author of the groundbreaking exposé, EXILE. Her articles previously appeared in such mainstream venues as the Los Angeles Times, Orange Coast Magazine, Long Beach Press Telegram, etc. In 2004, Janet “jumped ship” and now exclusively writes for independent media. She is also the author of two collections of poetry—The Hitler Poems and Held Captive. She resides abroad. You are invited to support her work on Buy Me A Coffee here: https://www.buymeacoffee.com/JanetPhelan

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