The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers itself to be one of the nation’s foremost scientific institutions, dedicated to transparency and evidence-driven policies. It is fair, therefore, to ask this question: What happens when the CDC brazenly ignores the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), taking more than five years to fulfill a journalist’s information request, which by law should take “approximately a month”?
Speaking from experience — absolutely nothing.
In July 2007, I submitted a simple request for emails and resumes from three CDC employees. This information was needed for background research associated with the Lyme disease documentary, Under Our Skin.
For five years the agency strung me along with frivolous denials, mysterious delays, shifting explanations and false promises. In essence, the delays became an illegal, off-the-books FOIA denial.
Related investigation The CDC documents, which took five years to obtain via FOIA, were part of an investigation published this weekend in The Poughkeepsie Journal:
Yet no one in the CDC FOIA office went to jail. And no one was fired or reprimanded.
The delays were variously attributed to understaffing, year-end deadlines, and people taking vacation. At one point, unanswered calls were blamed on a phone “dead zone” in the CDC’s new FOIA office. For years I was told that my request was at the top of the FOIA queue, and that it was on the verge of being processed.
In 2009, I realized that the CDC was tracking the progress of the film. I also obtained an email that showed that a CDC Press Officer, Christine Pearson, made an intimidating call to our public television distributor, Gayle Loeber at the National Educational Telecommunications Association, telling her that the CDC was concerned about the film’s content.