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South Dakota Newspaper Presses FOIA Fight for Food Stamp Payment Data

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by Publius
Posted October 23, 2013, 4:44 PM

Josh Gerstein reports for Politico:

South Dakota's Argus Leader newspaper urged a federal appeals court Wednesday to reverse a ruling blocking the newspaper from receiving data on how much the federal government pays to stores that redeeem food stamp benefits.

Jon Arneson, an attorney for the newspaper, told a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit that a lower court judge misinterpreted the law by ruling that a confidentiality provision for retailer applications allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to withhold all data on payments to those retailers. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the newspaper requested the data on annual payments to each retailer approved to take part in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

"The Argus is not asking for the invoices. They’re asking for the payment information. All we’re really doing is asking: how does the government spend its money in this instance?" Arneson told the three-judge panel sitting in St. Paul, Minn. "Because of the way FOIA is intended to be applied, we’re entitled to the benefit of the doubt. If there’s doubt here, the Argus is entitled to that benefit."

However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Bengford said the confidentiality provision applies because the cumulative amount of payments to each retailer is based on the series of purchase transactions the stores submit to USDA.

"But for the fact of gathering that information as to each transaction, USDA would not have the total amount of what it paid to the retailers," she told the judges. She also said that a provision in the law protecting information like "income and sales tax filing documents" authorized USDA to withhold data on its own payments to retailers, because they became part of the stores' income.

Arneson called that interpretation of the law "crazy."

"For us to say that that because the program itself requires this sort of payment or swiping of the card that suddenly that transforms all of that information into private information is—is crazy," the Argus's lawyer told the judges. "What we're simply asking for is how are the tax dollars spent. We're not trying to invade the privacy of the recipient households."

In a recording of the half-hour-long session posted on the 8th Circuit's website, the judges sounded skeptical about the government's interpretation of the law. However, a victory for the newspaper wouldn't guarantee release of the data. Instead, it would allow the feds to argue for withholding under other FOIA exemptions, such as one covering confidential business information.

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