Open records tips from a government accountability reporter: ‘Let the correspondence tell the tale’

Sarah D. Wire is a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times

It is Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of access to public information launched by the News Leaders Association in 2005. To commemorate the occasion, we’ve asked journalists across different beats to share their tips for requesting open records and responding when facing roadblocks to access.  

Today we learn from Sarah D. Wire, who covers government accountability, the Justice Department, and national security for the Los Angeles Times with a focus on the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and domestic extremism. Wire also sits on the National Press Club Board of Governors.

What are examples of public records pertaining to Jan. 6 that journalists might not think to request?

Wire: I’m a fan of using the side door whenever possible. State and local agencies, like local election boards, are a treasure trove for communications with people in Trump’s orbit right after the 2020 election, and they usually respond more quickly than federal agencies and with fewer redactions. 

Include communications with secretaries and assistants in your requests. Some states include communications with vendors under their records statutes. We’ve learned a lot from the emails sent between Arizona senators and the outside group that performed the Maricopa County audit, which American Oversight sued to obtain and then made public.

I enjoy timelines, so calendars and schedules are always good for helping lead people through events. But don’t just get the calendars of the key people; also ask for the calendars of the people they interact with but whom the public might not know for color, detail, and corroboration.

What is your response or process when a public records request is denied?

Wire: I start with calling the records officer to get more information about why the request was denied. Sometimes a friendly call coupled with a willingness to modify my request slightly results in getting records after all. I always have a copy of the relevant access statute on hand when I call.

What’s an open record request you never thought you’d be making?

Wire: When I covered Congress, I routinely requested correspondence between the staff of members of a state delegation and various federal agencies. In 2015, I stumbled across a fascinating story about a multi-year battle over the legal boundaries of a private cemetery surrounded by federal land in Arkansas.

I largely let the correspondence tell the tale, and it is still one of my favorite articles.

Share your FOIA and open records successes — or how you’ve worked around roadblocks — with The Latest subscribers. We’d love to feature your advice in our newsletter. 

See additional open records advice on:

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments