I'll never forget how ridiculous it was. In 1997 I'd filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the federal Medicare program to get some financial records for a local mental health facility.
We suspected the facility of Medicare fraud, and I needed the documents to find out for sure.
The feds sat on my request, I documented the story in some other way, and the story was published in the paper.
More than three years later, when I was a reporter at a paper 300 miles away, a thick brown envelope showed up in my mailbox. Medicare had finally gotten around to filling my Freedom of Information request.
As any reporter who's experimented with trying to get a federal agency to fork over public documents knows, FOIA is a joke.
And now there's a study to prove it. As it turns out, some agencies take a decade or two to comply with requests for public information.
To review: These documents belong to the public. We pay the workers who write them, the clerks who file them and the buildings that house them.
But if you want to look at any of those documents, you're pretty much out of luck.
The federal Freedom of Information law requires the government to respond to your request within seven days. But that response typically consists of a postcard acknowledging they've received the request. Then the waiting begins. Six months, a year, two years.
It used to be that the federal government was far ahead of most states in conducting its business transparently. That's far from the case today. Congress needs to fix the situation by passing a law that requires federal agencies to turn over most documents within seven days.