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Like dead men, the government tells no tales

MORGAN
MORGAN
By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 1, 2001


If I were a government bureaucrat -- God forbid -- I would not be able to write letters with a straight face like one I recently received from the Internal Revenue Service.

Never mind that they have lost -- LOST -- 40,000 tax returns. That's a story for another time.

My letter comes from IRS headquarters in Washington.

The first sentence begins: "This is in response to your Freedom of Information Act request dated November 28, 1989."

1989.

Did this bureaucrat even pause to consider that my request for information was sent in 12 years ago? Or does it always take them this long to respond? I could die of old age waiting.

That is only the beginning. Janice P. Rudolph, the program analyst at IRS, goes on to tell me that they have located 10 documents that are related to my request.

"We have reviewed these documents and we are denying them in their entirety," she adds.

If I want to push the issue, I'll need a valid power of attorney, she says.

Yeah. And an armed platoon!

For this I waited 12 years!

Whenever I get frustrated with the state public records law, I pull out my file of letters seeking information from the federal government and console myself.

With 36 years of experience in seeking access to records, I've learned that the subject of the record had best be dead if I'm going to get anything out of the federal government.

After Santo Trafficante, the Tampa Bay area's most notorious mobster, died in 1989, I filed a request for the federal records on him. I am still waiting for some of them.

Oh, I've gotten boxes and boxes of records -- most of them heavily edited with entire segments blocked out so I can't read them. They had the nerve to tantalize me with the fact that they have more than 38,000 pages that would fall under my request, but have sent me only small segments of pages.

Or take former U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper. We all knew Pepper had been harassed by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and accused of being a Communist. When Pepper died in 1989, I asked for the records.

Perhaps you won't be surprised to know that the FBI carefully recorded an entire page on his "1941 activities."

I'd like to tell you what they saw him doing, but the FBI carefully blacked out the entire page on the grounds that it might expose a source or information on a pending criminal matter.

Yeah, sure. More than 50 years later.

Perhaps the FBI could be more truthful by adding a category for exemptions called "withholding due to extreme embarrasment it would cause federal authorities."

Or "withholding some of the stupid things we did while we should have been keeping an eye out for terrorists."

This week the FBI gave me yet another reason to wonder what in the world they were thinking when they failed to share information with state and local officials in North Florida.

For years state and local law enforcement officials have complained and joked about the "one-way street" they travel when dealing with the FBI. Information flows in. Nothing comes back.

The implication is that these people can't really be trusted. The more probable explanation is that the folks keeping the secrets have done something stupid that they don't want exposed.

It would seem to me that the folks who are guarding the Capitol and the brother of President George W. Bush ought to know it when a man who fled from police in New York on Sept. 11 is spending time in the state capital.

Even the Secret Service gives the state and local guys a list of suspicious people when the president is traveling.

Sometimes the local guys are in a far better position to recognize a local bad guy than the guys who parachute in from Washington.

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