Foreign ingenuity trumped domestic bureaucracy at the Foreign Agent Registration Act Unit's public records office.
Romanian journalist Stefan Candea, 25, and an intern from the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity went to the office on New York Avenue this month to review disclosure forms filed by lobbyists who are working on behalf of foreign governments and businesses in Washington. The Justice Department office charges 50 cents a page to print out copies of the forms, which can be called up on government computers for review.
The price was a little steep for Candea, a freelance journalist. So the co-founder of the Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism came up with a clever way to avoid the fee: He used his digital camera to take pictures of the documents that interested him.
"It was just sort of an instinct, sort of a protest," said Candea, who was in the United States for a 10-day program at the University of Georgia.
Philip Martin, the intern, approached a staffer to ask a question. "She was frozen in her tracks, looking at Stefan," Martin said. "She said: 'He's taking pictures. I don't think he can do that.' "
Martin asked whether a rule prohibited the practice. The Justice Department employees checked and couldn't find one. The pair returned to the office the next day and began taking more pictures. "They definitely made it evident that they weren't thrilled with what we were doing," Martin said.
Bob Williams, a project director for the Center for Public Integrity, said he wasn't surprised. The nonprofit group has filed a lawsuit and fought the agency for more than two years to obtain the database of lobbying disclosure forms, which the group wants to post on its Web site. "It's a public records room, but they don't take the public part of it very seriously," he said.
The Justice Department's view of the matter? "Nobody thought all that much of it in the office," Justice spokesman Bryan Sierra said. "We've got bigger fish to fry."
-- Christopher Lee