Canadian Journalism Foundation
Aug. 8, 2012
Ensuring productive FOI requests oftenrequires advance reporting
By Charles Rusnell
Within minutes of beginning to skim through the expense-claim records of a senior health services executive I hadrecently received through Freedom of Information, I knew I had an important story.But then, I had a good idea of the newsworthiness of those records before I filed the request months earlier.That is because a long-time source had told me that Allaudin Merali, Al
berta Health Service’s chief financial
officer, had filed outrageous expense claims while he was in the same position with Capital Health, the regionalhealth authority for the Edmonton region before it was melded into AHS, the giant authority that now operates
Alberta’s health care system.
I didn’t know exactly what expenses Merali had claimed, but I did know that my once highly
-placed source wouldhave direct knowledge of them, which would greatly improve the odds of my request producing newsworthyinformation.It was definitely newsworthy. Even before we could publish and broadcast all our stories, the Alberta government
fired Merali, acknowledging that CBC’s FOI request had made it aware of nearly $350,000 in questionable expense
claims. Those claims included a $1,600 dinner tab and a $2,300 claim for the installation of a cell phone in hisMercedes Benz car.The next day, AHS board member Sheila Weatherill resigned. She had been chief executive officer of Capital Health
and had signed off on Merali’s ex
penses.The health minister called in the auditor general to conduct a forensic audit. Another internal investigation is alsounderway.
A simple FOI request had cost two jobs, sparked two investigations and driven the province’s news agenda for days.
t wasn’t just a chance request.
Like many journalists, I once employed a scatter-gun approach to FOI: file dozens of requests and hope somethingturns up. I still make the odd request on a hunch, but most are based on solid information gleaned from sources, tipsor leaked documents.I actively seek information from confidential sources that can guide my requests and increase the chances of
producing newsworthy information. Put another way, if a source, for various reasons, can’t speak on the record, I ask
them to provide information I can use to craft FOI requests that are focused both in terms of the information sought,and the time frame.But you might ask: how did I find this particular source and why would he be prepared to help me? All reporters
notonly investigative reporters
should actively work to cultivate long-term relationships with sources. It is critical toconsistently producing original stories, which is what separates good reporters from the merely competent.