GEMA/HS Responds to AJC Article on Open Records Requests
(ATLANTA) – Today, the Atlanta Journal Constitution published an article by staff writer David Wickert, implying that the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency was withholding documents related to the state’s COVID-19 response in violation of the Georgia Open Records Act.
“GEMA/HS is committed to operating transparently, and has done so throughout the pandemic response,” said Director Homer Bryson. “Implying that we have not fulfilled our obligation to the press and the citizens of Georgia as outlined in the Georgia Open Records Act is absolutely untrue.”
From the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic GEMA/HS has been an open source of information for the AJC, and news outlets across the United States. Balancing the demands of responding to the pandemic and the public’s need for information, GEMA/HS responded to hundreds of reporter inquiries and processed voluminous open records requests. For the Atlanta Journal Constitution alone, GEMA/HS released 104,838 pages of emails, purchase orders and other sensitive documents, requiring more than 272 man hours to complete.
The AJC’s article claiming GEMA/HS “withheld documents,” referred to reports that were sent to the agency by outside organizations, specifically the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the White House. These documents, marked For Official Use Only (“FOUO”), were neither created nor labeled by GEMA/HS. After consulting with the Georgia Attorney General’s Office, the agency explained to Wickert that it does not have the authority to disclose information or alter classifications of documents labeled FOUO. Wickert was also provided information including document titles, dates and authors and directed to the agencies that created those documents to obtain them, as noted in the letter from GEMA/HS General Counsel to David Wickert on August 11. The letter can be viewed in its entirety.
Based on the delicate nature of the classified data GEMA/HS receives from various federal and state offices, the agency‘s position is to maintain its commitment to security by safeguarding sensitive information.
The article went on to state that additional documents were only made available after the threat of an article being written accusing the agency of withholding information.
“We worked with the Attorney General’s office to fulfill the Open Record’s requests, and in a few instances there was some miscommunication between our offices in what should be redacted,” said Bryson. “As soon as it was brought to our attention, those documents were released without delay. When we become aware of a problem we fix it.”
Wickert also alleged that the production of documents in PDF format violated the Open Records Law because documents must be provided in their original format. The law states “A requester may request that electronic records, data, or data fields be produced in the format in which such data or electronic records are kept by the agency, or in a standard export format.” Wickert did not request that documents be sent in their original format until June, and was provided original documents in all subsequent requests. Additionally, it is standard practice to release public documents in PDF format to prevent the editing of content.
The headline image accompanying the AJC’s article is also misleading. The image displays a redacted FEMA document titled “PPE Shipments,” that bears the restrictive marking FOUO on each page. The content of this record is exempt from disclosure under the Georgia Records Act, as well as under the Freedom of Information Act. GEMA/HS made this clear to Wickert, citing to both the state and federal law in its letter dated August 11.
“We will continue to work with the media to keep the public informed so they can make the best decisions for themselves and their families,” said Bryson. “This includes releasing information in full compliance with Georgia Open Records Act.”
As part of the Office of the Governor, GEMA/HS works with local, state and federal governments, in partnership with the private sector and faith-based community, to protect life and property against man-made and natural emergencies. In addition, GEMA/HS employees are on 24-hour call statewide to assist local authorities when disaster strikes. GEMA/HS’s Ready Georgia campaign helps Georgians prepare for disasters. Go to gema.ga.gov for information on developing a custom emergency plan and Ready kit.