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Saturday, December 03, 2005

FEMA Is Digging Itself Into a Deeper Hole By Denying FOIA Request for Survey Data

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 agency's 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doing it points to why one of the most frequently used and abused FOIA exemptions ought to be seriously tightened up or repealed outright.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 FOIA's confidentiality and pre-decisional exemptions. Neither exemption is appropriate to the FEMA case, according to FOIA experts.

News-Press Senior Writer Melanie Payne said "the 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."

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 taxpayers' 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 analyses.

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 coalition's 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 coalition’s 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 don’t 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 poles and the like.

That didn't 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:

"Three 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.
"Besides 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."

The lesson here is that FEMA's 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.

Note: This post originally appeared as my weekly column on Townhall.com.