Public Records from Commercial Sources

2003 Special Libraries Association Annual Conference
News Division Session: Public Records from Commercial Sources.

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Welcome to Public Records from Commercial Sources, brought to you by the News Division.

My name is Sammy Alzofon. I'm library director at The Palm Beach Post, in West Palm Beach, Florida. I've been at The Post for 10 years and before that worked at the St. Petersburg Times for a number of years, and before that. .. Well, to give you an idea of how long I've been around, in this profession whose name everyone keeps trying to change, I just received an invitation to my 35th class reunion.

The Post is a medium size newspaper with some hard-hitting competition to the south (South Florida Sun-Sentinel) and north (Scripps Treasure Coast Publishing Company). This means I owe my job to the competition, because most papers our size do not have a 12-member library staff. We also have virtually all the resources we need in the library to provide research services. Among them is access to any of the commercial public record vendors we believe we need. Florida is unique in the wide range of public records available to the public. On one hand many types of information are available on official websites, at no charge, while on the other hand there has been an ongoing effort at both the state and national level to shrink this availability.

Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law was passed in 1967, and each year, since 1978, the Florida Attorney General's Office prepares the Government in the Sunshine Manual. The original edition was 79 pages and the most recent edition is 359 pages.

So you see, Attorney General Ashcroft, in shutting down access to information at the federal level, is only continuing a long tradition of curtailing access to government information.

During the most recent regular session of the Florida legislature there were 145 proposed exemptions to open records laws. Only four passed, and our headline read "Open-records backers breathe easier after session." A constitutional amendment approved by Florida voters last November, requiring a two-thirds vote by both chambers to restrict access to public records, is credited with helping to hold the number of new exemptions to just the four.

Because Florida's public records are so much more available than other states, and the state is pioneering in digitizing records, it is no accident that the largest aggregator of public records information started in my own circulation area, southern Palm Beach County, in Boca Raton. Database Technologies still has offices there and yet another company is now headquartered there also, Accurint.

But this isn't about just Florida. We are here this afternoon to give you a snapshot of what commercial public record vendors are up to these days, and perhaps more importantly, what are the issues that continue to surface around the use of these records. Huge quantities of information are being aggregated into databases capable of quickly searching for names, social security numbers, addresses, etc. The use of these records is a history of pitfalls you could possibly fall into -- here's a great one:

The Bureau of Industry and Security, U.S. Department of Commerce, formerly the Bureau of Export Administration, maintains a "Denied Persons List" -- The Fine Print: Export Privileges are denied by written order of the Department of Commerce. Each order affecting export privileges is published in the Federal Register. These orders are the official source of information about denied persons and are controlling if there is an inconsistency with anything on this list or elsewhere on this Web site. The Federal Register from 1995 to the present is available on the Government Printing Office Access Web site Prior to 1995, you may need to consult the printed version or other on-line source of the Federal Register.

I ran a check on the chairman and CEO of a very large company. Amongst the items presented to me as his information was the following item:

Possible Infractions
This data indicates a possible infraction on the searched name, however, the data should be verified through the agency that reported the infraction.
Record of source: US Dept of Comerce, Bureau of Export Admin, Denied Persons Info
Action Date: 3/23/1999
Expiration Date: 4/23/2004

I called the newly renamed Bureau of Industry and Security to find out what relationship this record had to my CEO. I also called the vendor who supplied this information. How did this record get where it landed? No one could tell me. This is a very obvious mismatch, however most mismatches are not so obvious. Training plays a very large role in the use of public records, especially those coming from commercially aggregated databases. We do handouts, tip sheets (see sample I brought on courts), brown bags, whatever it takes, to maintain awareness levels about the pitfalls in using these records. In fact, our research staff received its very own published correction for the misinterpretation of an entry in a public record. Our researcher was devastated. I put a positive spin to it -- this means we not only do research, but are totally responsible for the outcome, the equal of any reporter or writer in the newsroom. This correction is now framed and hangs at our reference desk.

The legal issues involved in the access and use of public records are most dynamic right now. They are being driven as much by the emotion as the reality. Much of California's legal access to personal information is still determined by the 1989 stalking murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer. The paperwork involved in obtaining access to California driving information for employment purposes, which my company attempted, is so involved that we said thanks, but no thanks. At the federal level the buzzword is privacy, and the events of September 11, 2001, accelerated government activity in the privacy arena.

But our time is short and I'd like to give you all the advantage of hearing from our two panelists, both longtime news librarians and News Division members. I take much pleasure in introducing, first, Sandy Levy, director of Library Services at The Baltimore Sun, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Sandy has lived in the Baltimore area since 1970. While working toward graduation from Towson University as an English Major, she worked at various insurance companies, city agencies, and law firms in and around the city. She has created litigation support databases for cases on asbestos and Old Court Savings and Loan, arranged insurance coverage for nearly every auto repair dealer in the Baltimore-Washington DC area, and once tracked down former employees of Sparrows Point Steel to tell them about their health benefits.

Sandy holds a Masters in Library Science from the University of Maryland, College Park. Prior to coming to The Sun, she was an information specialist at the Health Sciences Library at University of Maryland--Baltimore where she trained doctors, nurses, pharmacists and social work students to perform their own research.

Sandy began her career at The Sun in 1994 as Deputy Director of the Library. She makes sure that the great Sun librarians have the tools they need to do their jobs. Besides daily research and maintaining The Sun print and electronic archive, the library serves as webmaster for the corporate intranet, does training and orientation, and works to broaden the reach of the library to everyone at The Sun.

And we also have Liz Donovan, News Research editor at the Miami Herald. Liz is responsible for Internet and commercial database acquisition and training, the newsroom intranet, and news research. She was a member of the team that won the 1999 Pulitzer prize in investigative reporting, for research and reporting on voting fraud in the 1997 Miami mayoral election. And, the job I've never asked about, but would love to hear about: Liz was assistant librarian/national desk researcher at the Washington Post during Pentagon Papers and Watergate investigations.

She has been a speaker at IRE, NICAR, SPJ, SLA, Netmedia, and Periodistas de Investigacion conferences. And finally, she is author of Behind the News research Weblog at

How we're proceeding: We have several handouts available. Sandy and Liz will speak for 15 or 20 minutes each, and then we'll open up the mike for questions from the floor. And now I'd like to turn over the podium/mike to Sandy Levy.