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Every day, you probably hear about high-profile showdowns between the White House and the press.

Just in the last week, CNN sued the Trump administration for yanking reporter Jim Acosta’s press credentials over MicGrabGate, and the president also told CNN reporter Abby Phillip that her question about the fate of the Mueller investigation under acting AG Matt Whitaker was “stupid.”

I’d posit, though, that the most egregious and troubling instances of the Trump administration undermining the press – or outright violating laws enabling our work – happen in a much less obvious way.

Behind the scenes, agencies across the federal government are failing to meet their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act, the federal law under which members of the public can access documents that shed light on what the government is doing and how it’s spending money.

Almost a year ago, we put in a FOIA request for documents related to the border wall project – an effort that will impact the health and livelihood of people in the San Diego region. Some agencies responded, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not. So we’ve filed a lawsuit, asking the court to compel the agency to fulfill the request.

We’re being represented pro bono by media attorney Thomas Burke of Davis Wright Tremaine.

When I first started talking with Burke about our options, he told me something startling: Lawsuits like these have become virtually the only way for journalists to access their rights under FOIA.

“Few agencies will ever respond to a FOIA request within the statutory period (20 days),” he told me this week in an email. “In this environment, unless you have the luxury of waiting months (or even years) to receive a response to your FOIA request – and who does? – you will need to file a lawsuit in order to timely receive information from a federal agency.”

This week, TechDirt declared that 50 years after the passage of FOIA, “the letter of the law lives on but its spirit has been crushed.”

That means that lawsuits like ours are not unique. In fact, things have gotten so bad, that lawsuits have become not the exception but the rule. More from Techdirt:

“No, citizens shouldn’t have to file lawsuits just to get the government to turn over responsive records. And, yet, this has become the expected route to freeing information. Nearly every document handed out by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has been prompted by a lawsuit.”

In 2017, a record 651 FOIA lawsuits were filed against the government, according to The FOIA Project.

That’s troubling on its own, but it’s even more disturbing when you consider the people and newsrooms that don’t have the resources to file a lawsuit.

As CJ Ciamarella noted this week in his feature on the decimation of FOIA, “If you don’t have the money to lawyer up, you’ll have to content yourself with waiting months, and often years, for documents.”

Despite the spike in litigation, though, “less than 1 percent of all FOIA requests ever result in a FOIA lawsuit,” said Burke. That means that “agencies face little risk if their response is untimely or if they fail to comply with FOIA at all.”

What VOSD Learned This Week

It was a week for reporting on earth, wind and fire.

Poway Unified is still giving no-bid contracts to Fieldturf, the company whose products have fallen apart in that district – and across San Diego County.

The Santa Anas aren’t at their fiercest lately, but San Diego nonetheless has the ingredients in place for an uncontrollable wildfire.

♦♦♦

It’s been more than a week, but the election results in some contests are still shaking out. This week, Mike Schaefer overtook Sen. Joel Anderson in the vote count for a seat on the Board of Equalization. Schaefer has a long, weird, troubling history.

In Encinitas, officials had hoped to finally get a housing plan on the books. It failed, cementing the city’s status as the most housing-averse place in California.

On the podcast, we talked about the ways in which the election is still surprising us.

It’s not too early to start thinking about the 2020 election. David Alvarez is already reconsidering whether he wants to be part of it.

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Maya Srikrishnan was the first to report that a group of LGBT migrants that split off from the main caravan traveling through Mexico made it to Tijuana.

Also this week, the county held its first legally required hearing on ICE’s presence in local jails, where officials disclosed that there are more immigrants voluntarily agreeing to meet with ICE without a lawyer than there are those who decline the meetings.

♦♦♦

Mayor Kevin Faulconer will try to get several agencies that don’t see eye to eye on the airport’s plan to expand Terminal 1 to come together.

Another fun thing the mayor is still dealing with: the troubled water department – which is still troubled, in case you were wondering.

What I’m Reading

Line of the Week

“I am flabbergasted and upset that each and every one of the women being talked about as front-runners are the specific women who have already alienated me. I am as frustrated by this terrible coincidence as you are, believe me!” – This column about why no individual woman ever seems to satisfy those who profess to support women is absolutely perfect.

Sara Libby

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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