Ferguson, Missouri, officials are reportedly charging exorbitant fees for access to certain government files related to 18-year-old Michael Brown's death -- that, mind you, they are legally required to release as part of the the Sunshine Act. Haven't you learned, Ferguson?
According to the Associated Press, these documents could be given away free of charge if officials deemed that the material was in the public's interest. As Brown's death and the subsequent protests in the St. Louis suburb have been in the public eye for months, any related documents pretty clearly qualify.
The AP's Jack Gillum reports:
It billed The Associated Press $135 an hour -- for nearly a day's work -- merely to retrieve a handful of email accounts since the shooting.
That fee compares with an entry-level, hourly salary of $13.90 in the city clerk's office, and it didn't include costs to review the emails or release them.
Price-gouging for government files is one way that local, state and federal agencies have responded to requests for potentially embarrassing information they may not want released. Open records laws are designed to give the public access to government records at little or no cost, and have historically exposed waste, wrongdoing and corruption.
"The first line of defense is to make the requester go away," said Rick Blum, who coordinates the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups that advocates for open government. "Charging exorbitant fees to simply cut and paste is a popular tactic."
Ferguson officials told BuzzFeed that the news website would have to pay thousands of dollars for emails and policy memos, while the Washington Post said that Ferguson quoted at least $200 for its requests.
This comes after the town's officials have come under fire for lack of transparency in the investigation into Michael Brown's death. Famously, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson refused to release the name of Brown's shooter, Darren Wilson, for days, instead releasing video footage of Brown allegedly robbing a Quickie Mart.