CDC Hilarity

image shows a piece of cake with the layers colored like the American flag

Over the years, I have filed many FOIA requests, and I have learned that it can take a long time to get a response. But CDC takes the cake.

In my experience, all the agencies meet the statutory requirement of “responding” within twenty days, but that “response” is almost always a simple acknowledgement of the request. Getting the actual documents can take months, or more. It’s just part of the process. But even in the context of FOIA, CDC is notorious for its slow responses. And this month, I got hilarious proof of that.

Way back in March 2014 – yes, more than three YEARS ago – I filed a FOIA request with CDC for documents showing how much money CDC contributed to the IOM study, and any communications between CDC and the Office on Women’s Health about the study. I filed identical requests with other health agencies, too. Then I waited.

Responses trickled in, anywhere between one and fifteen months after I filed the requests. But for CDC, I waited. And waited.

Then on June 14, 2017, I received a letter from CDC. But it didn’t accompany released documents. Nope. The letter said:

Your FOIA request is currently estimated at $227.50, which exceeds the $100 maximum FOIA processing fees you are willing to pay. Please know that this is the current estimate and fees could increase due to the amount of time it may take to review any responsive records received.

My immediate reaction to this letter looked something like this:

a seal lies on a beach with one flipper in the air and a laughter-like expression on its face

Friends, I have filed more than 50 FOIA requests over the past few years. Some of the responses have been hundreds or even thousands of pages. I have never, not ONCE, been charged money for those responses. The law allows recovery of fees, and the government notifies you if the search will cost more than a threshold amount. Despite the fact that my requests have sometimes involved lengthy searches, I have never been charged a dime.

It’s almost like CDC doesn’t want to disclose documents. If I were trying to discourage people from filing FOIA requests, I would stretch response times out as long as possible and I would charge as much as possible.

Now, as a former litigator, this kind of thing piques my interest. If finding responsive documents is going to cost more than $200, how many documents are there? What if it is a treasure trove? The stubborn lawyer in me says “call that bluff.” When someone tries to make me go away, I’m going to show up louder and harder. That’s what I’m trained to do.

But at this point, the IOM contract has been over for two years. And I would rather spend my money on an effort that is likely to bear fruit for ME patients, like David Tuller’s work on PACE. Besides, CDC should just provide this information to the public. At a bare minimum, Dr. Beth Unger could provide the dollar figure of CDC’s contribution to the IOM contract. In fact, she could do so quite easily at next week’s CFSAC meeting. Why should anyone have to PAY to get this piece of information?

So as much as it pains me to say this, CDC can keep their documents. I’m not going to pay $200+ to the government for documents that will be heavily redacted and potentially not that much use. I just don’t have the dollars, or the energy.

But thanks for the laugh, CDC.

meme of an angry looking koala and the caption you’re hilarious I’m dying of laughter

(Bonus: my favorite laugh video of all time, so you can laugh with me)

UPDATE: 12:31pm, June 22,2017. An anonymous and generous donor has offered to pay the $227.50 processing fee. I have sent CDC a letter accepting the fee, so now we wait for the documents. Who’s laughing now?

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21 Responses to CDC Hilarity

  1. Sometimes you just have to laugh – or you would end up crying.

    This is OUR government, providing US with information about how they spent OUR money. Some petty bureaucrat somewhere is gumming up the works on purpose because he/she doesn’t want to do the work.

    And a ‘response’ acknowledging receipt of a request is a travesty.

    Can we bring THIS government to a halt by requesting stuff?

  2. lolly says:

    Jennie, is it true that the regulations only require them to respond to the request but not actually produce?

  3. Nita Thatcher says:

    The fighter in me wants to propose that a thousand of us in the ME/CFS community request the very same documentation that you requested. Perhaps if 1000 requests for the same information were made, the next FOIA request concerning ME/CFS would be better respected? Perhaps if all those requests arrived within a day or two of each other and were addressed to the attention of a single individual, the impact would be greater? Is this possible? Is there a FOIA form that can be printed off with the exact request you made, with an address and a name where it can be mailed? The price of a printed page and a stamp might be a small token to pay to wake someone up?

    • Melee Barkis says:

      I’m in. Let’s do it. Jennie you’re the expert here, provide us with step-by-step instructions, and maybe we can all even get friends and relatives to do it, too.

    • Jennie Spotila says:

      FOIA doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. Each request that comes in is processed in turn. And a flood of requests like mine will not increase the speed or attention that is paid to my original request. In fact, annoying FOIA officers is a good way to slow down responses. I have, to date, had cordial relationships with FOIA officers and that has actually worked in my favor a couple times.

      • Nita Thatcher says:

        It’s quite sad, isn’t it, when a government employee of the people can be annoyed and react vindictively?

  4. Lynn says:

    How about a GoFundMe campaign, where we can all chip in a dollar or two and call their bluff?

  5. Rivka says:

    Yes! I’ll chip in to call their bluff.

  6. Cindy Downey says:

    Hi Jennie,

    Thank you for your perseverance in sending your FOIA requests. A tremendous amount of work!

    Earlier this year, I filed a request under the Canadian Access to Information Act with Health Canada for any and all documents pertaining to the topics Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, as well as specifically requesting any and all information pertaining to the Canadian Consensus Criteria. The response came back that the Public Health Agency, a department of Health Canada, has the most relevance to my request. I asked for the years 2000 to 2003 to be searched. According to information in the CCC, and the Overview for same, the consensus meeting took place in 2001, and the CCC was published in 2003. The CCC, and the Overview advise Health Canada selected the expert medical panel, and determined the terms of reference. So, at some point Health Canada was on board. Several meetings, phone calls etc. must have happened. There is also an external record of correspondence from the Health Minister of the day.

    Here is what came back from the Canadian federal government regarding my request: ” Having completed a thorough search, we regret to inform you that we were unable to locate any records which are responsive to your request.”

    Arguably, the most important document for millions of people with ME, and this search turned up nothing.
    Records external to the federal government show contact, meetings etc., made on several occasions with Health Canada officials, including the Health Minister, and others at senior levels.

    I have re-submitted with broader criteria and years.

  7. Cindy Downey says:

    Hi Jennie,

    I forgot to close out my first comment.

    Thank you very much for your work on this, and for keeping the community up to date. Your work, and insights are invaluable!

  8. Terri Wilder says:

    I haven’t read the above comments so don’t know if this has been asked. Can someone ask Beth Unger during public comment to respond to this information request. If she won’t–Jennie, I will give you the money. Best, Terri

    • Jennie Spotila says:

      Great idea, for someone to ask at CFSAC. And someone stepped up to pay the fee! Thanks Terri!

  9. Cindy says:

    Incredible blog, Jennie! Memes, the American cake, and your humor is contagious. As always, you’re an excellent resource to help us with our advocacy and beyond – thank you for your tremendous work! Thanks for the laugh today!

    Thanks to the anonymous and generous donor, and everyone offering to help pay! Count me in too.

  10. Janet Dafoe says:

    Thank you! And that laugh video is the BEST!

  11. Kathy D. says:

    It’s great that you can laugh about this travesty.

    When a U.S. resident requests documents of its government, one to which we pay taxes, isn’t there a right to obtain them for free? And in a timely manner.

    I followed Jeannette Burmeister’s amazing litigation which she won. She
    got documents under the FOIA and also attorneys fees.

    But she had her spouse’s law firm doing a lot of the work and she wouldn’t have been able to do this herself.

    Good luck with your request and thanks for your hard work and perseverance on our behalf.

  12. Lisa Petrison says:

    Now I am very curious about just exactly what is going on here!

Comments are closed.