How Agrochemical Corporations Suppress Public Records and Prevent Transparency

Camille Fassett

Trans­paren­cy advo­cate Gary Ruskin want­ed to know how the pow­er­ful food and agro­chem­i­cal indus­tries influ­ence pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties and their research.

His small pub­lic inter­est con­sumer health watch­dog orga­ni­za­tion, U.S. Right to Know, start­ed inves­ti­gat­ing the con­nec­tions between the indus­tries, their allies, and tax­pay­er-fund­ed uni­ver­si­ties. Pub­lic records are a cru­cial tool Ruskin uses fre­quent­ly to uncov­er the details of the uni­ver­si­ty inter­ac­tions with agro­chem­i­cal companies.

My hunch was that: in the inter­ac­tions between uni­ver­si­ties and the agro­chem­i­cal indus­try and its front groups, there would be indus­try secrets and there would be news, and there would be things that con­sumers and cit­i­zens should know. So, I filed the FOIAs, and then more FOIAs, and in the end I was right — more than I could have imag­ined,” Ruskin told Free­dom of the Press Foundation.

His numer­ous pub­lic records requests have pro­duced doc­u­ments that have exposed rela­tion­ships between uni­ver­si­ties and com­pa­nies like Mon­san­to, but the agro­chem­i­cal indus­try is fight­ing to keep these ties secret. 

These requests include three filed with the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da for com­mu­ni­ca­tions between uni­ver­si­ty employ­ees and peo­ple asso­ci­at­ed with food pes­ti­cide com­pa­nies. Ruskin received some, but not all, of the doc­u­ments he asked for, in his requests for com­mu­ni­ca­tions between the uni­ver­si­ty and com­pa­nies like Mon­san­to, so he filed a law­suit against the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da alleg­ing vio­la­tion of Florida’s Sun­shine Law.

A retired Uni­ver­si­ty of Okla­homa pro­fes­sor who serves on the board of direc­tors of an orga­ni­za­tion with ties to Mon­san­to, Drew Ker­shen, has inter­vened in the law­suit. He argued in his motion for sum­ma­ry judg­ment, which was lat­er denied, that the release of the doc­u­ments request­ed, which include inter­nal agro­chem­i­cal indus­try email dis­cus­sions, would vio­late his privacy.

Ker­shen filed a dis­cov­ery request on Jan­u­ary 17, 2018 to inter­ro­gate Ruskin about why the Yahoo! group emails should be con­sid­ered pub­lic record, and why he filed the records requests in the first place.

In his response, Ruskin object­ed to many of Kershen’s ques­tions, which includ­ed describe the type of knowl­edge the Request­ed Records were intend­ed to per­pet­u­ate, com­mu­ni­cate, or for­mal­ize” and Why are you seek­ing the Request­ed Doc­u­ments from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da?” Ruskin’s attor­ney says that under Flori­da law, no one needs a rea­son to request pub­lic doc­u­ments, and the sub­jects of the infor­ma­tion being request­ed don’t have to do any­thing in par­tic­u­lar to make the records eli­gi­ble for dis­clo­sure. She thinks it’s unlike­ly the judge will require him to answer these questions. 

Michael Morisy, cofounder of gov­ern­ment trans­paren­cy web­site Muck­Rock, which helps auto­mate pub­lic records requests, says this line of ques­tion­ing is deeply con­cern­ing when judges take it seri­ous­ly. Under most states laws, if it’s open to you it’s open to every­one and it doesn’t mat­ter why the requester wants the doc­u­ments. Basis for release isn’t what your moti­va­tion is for ask­ing for it. It would be very unusu­al for requesters to be forced to explain why.”

The emails that Ruskin did receive were illu­mi­nat­ing. In them, Ker­shen urges oth­er mem­bers of a Yahoo! email list used for inter­nal indus­try dis­cus­sion to resist Ruskin’s law­ful records requests.

I urge resist­ing dis­clo­sure as much as pos­si­ble because USRTK is on a strat­e­gy to acquire as may emails as pos­si­ble,” Ker­shen wrote in emails to the Yahoo! email group for inter­nal indus­try dis­cus­sion that were released through Ruskin’s pub­lic records requests. Of course, USRTK will also be comb­ing those released emails to cre­ate a neg­a­tive nar­ra­tive about each of us in a vast con­spir­a­cy of a secret cabal.”

US Right to Know has inves­ti­gat­ed Kershen’s orga­ni­za­tion, Genet­ic Lit­er­a­cy Project in the past, and pub­lished about its finan­cial ties to agri­cul­tur­al engi­neer­ing com­pa­nies includ­ing Mon­san­to and Syn­gen­ta. (Ker­shen did not respond to request by Free­dom of the Press Foun­da­tion for comment.)

This isn’t the first time Ruskin’s pub­lic records requests have sparked oppo­si­tion from the agro­chem­i­cal indus­try. Doc­u­ments pro­duced through his requests formed the basis of a 2015 front page Times arti­cle that detailed how Mon­san­to enlist­ed aca­d­e­mics to oppose the label­ing of genet­i­cal­ly engi­neered foods. In response, Kevin Fol­ta, a Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da pro­fes­sor, sued the Times and jour­nal­ist Eric Lip­ton for defama­tion in 2017.

Fol­ta even filed a broad sub­poe­na against Ruskin and two oth­er US Right to Know employ­ees to tes­ti­fy in the law­suit and pro­duce doc­u­ments, includ­ing their com­mu­ni­ca­tions with the Times. Ruskin says that the the request was essen­tial­ly demand­ing the non­prof­it to pro­duce over 100,000 doc­u­ments for his sub­poe­na alone. Fol­ta final­ly with­drew the order after Ruskin’s legal rep­re­sen­ta­tion filed a motion to quash the subpoena.

Records that reveal the details of rela­tion­ships between gov­ern­ment agen­cies and pri­vate enti­ties are a crit­i­cal use of the fed­er­al Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act and state-lev­el pub­lic records acts. Yet, as these instances exem­pli­fy, pri­vate par­ties are increas­ing­ly deploy­ing a diver­si­ty of tac­tics to pre­vent the dis­clo­sure of news­wor­thy doc­u­ments about themselves.

Pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tions resist­ing dis­clo­sure of pub­lic records is not unique to the agro­chem­i­cal indus­try or to Flori­da. Multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tion Landis+Gyr sued a pub­lic records requester and trans­paren­cy web­site Muck­Rock in 2016 after the City of Seat­tle released records about the city’s new smart meter pow­er grid. The com­pa­ny obtained a court order for Muck­Rock to de-pub­lish the doc­u­ments that was ulti­mate­ly over­turned, and even demand­ed Muck­Rock help iden­ti­fy read­ers who may have seen the doc­u­ments —a poten­tial­ly mas­sive pri­va­cy violation.

Bus man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pa­ny New Fly­er sued Metro last May to block the release of the details of its $500 mil­lion con­tract with the agency. When a jour­nal­ist in Texas request­ed traf­fic pro­jec­tions for a toll road project built by a pri­vate com­pa­ny, the com­pa­ny sued to block the release.

Face­book has demand­ed that offi­cials give it at least three days notice before respond­ing to any pub­lic records requests involv­ing the com­pa­ny. In some cas­es, it has even asked to cities to send it a copy of the records request before offi­cials respond. Face­book, as well as oth­er com­pa­nies includ­ing Ama­zon, have also used code names to shield their iden­ti­ties and hide their inter­ac­tions with gov­ern­ment agen­cies from the public. 

Advance notice of pub­lic records requests could allow Face­book to ini­ti­ate a reverse FOIA”, in which a com­pa­ny tries to block the release of records about itself by bring­ing requesters to court. It could also allow com­pa­nies to deter­mine what sto­ries jour­nal­ists are pur­su­ing and build a strat­e­gy to delay or halt unfa­vor­able coverage.

Gary Ruskin wor­ries that the oppo­si­tion to his pub­lic records requests will deter future jour­nal­ists or orga­ni­za­tions from crit­i­cal­ly inves­ti­gat­ing cor­po­rate wrong­do­ing, espe­cial­ly those with less resources.

If we win the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da FOIA law­suit, and get news­wor­thy doc­u­ments, will any jour­nal­ists write about them? Will they write, know­ing that that even if they write an arti­cle that is fair and accu­rate […], they may get sued for defamation?”

To Ruskin, the agro­chem­i­cal industry’s resis­tance to U.S. Right to Know’s inves­tiga­tive work only reaf­firms that it has infor­ma­tion to hide. He thinks that infor­ma­tion about the food that we eat, and the pes­ti­cides that we con­sume, are in the pub­lic inter­est, and he won’t stop fight­ing to bring cor­po­rate influ­ence of sci­en­tif­ic insti­tu­tions to light.

Fil­ing pub­lic records requests makes gov­ern­ment activ­i­ties pub­lic — inher­ent­ly an act of jour­nal­ism. Attempts by cor­po­ra­tions and indus­tries to block the release of pub­lic records about them­selves are a threat to press free­dom, whether they are deployed against news­pa­pers, vet­er­an jour­nal­ists or cit­i­zens. The pub­lic has the right to know what gov­ern­ment agen­cies are doing with their tax­pay­er dol­lars, and con­trac­tor com­pli­ance with laws can only be assured when this infor­ma­tion is disclosed.

(“How Cor­po­ra­tions Sup­press Dis­clo­sure of Pub­lic Records About Them­selveswas first pub­lished on The work is licensed under a Cre­ative Com­mons 4.0 Attri­bu­tion Inter­na­tion­al License.)

Camille Fas­sett is a reporter for the Free­dom of the Press Foun­da­tion. She doc­u­ments press free­dom vio­la­tions, such as arrests of jour­nal­ists, for the U.S. Press Free­dom Track­er, and man­ages social media. Her aca­d­e­m­ic work at UC Berke­ley focused on inter­na­tion­al devel­op­ment and human­i­tar­i­an aid. She is an activist, writer, self defense instruc­tor and ama­teur chef.
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