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RecordExplanationExample of data online (if any)StoryDescriptionMedia outlet
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FOIA logMost government agencies keep a log of all their public records requests. Those logs are sometimes online, but usually have to be requested through the federal or state public records law.https://www.aphis.usda.gov/foia/foia_logs/2018/December.pdf United States Department of Agriculture
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
Records request pricey at the University of IdahoRecords fees ranged from $64 to nearly $90,000Murrow News Service
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Record retention scheduleMost states and local government have a document detailing how long they must hold on to documents. That document, in turn, provides a good window into all the different types of documents each agency produces.
http://www.sos.ne.gov/records-management/pdf/15_website.pdf
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Master list of formsWant to know what data/info an agency keeps? Ask to see the list of forms. If you see any interesting form on the list, ask for a copy of the form itself. (Note: If an agency says it doesn't have a list of forms, you can just FOIA all the forms instead.)
https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/master_list_-_2017_05_19.pdf
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Record layout / Data dictionaryWhat information is in the agency's database? What do the codes mean? Those all should be explained in the documentation, typically called a record layout or data dictionary.What data fields are collected?
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Manuals/policies/guidelinesIt's important to know how an agency collects information and what rules it follows. To figure that out, it's worth requesting the agency's manuals, policies, and guidelines.Sometimes you'll find out about reports or documents mentioned in the rules that you didn't know about. Other times, you'll find out the agency isn't following its own rules.http://useofforceproject.org/database/http://www.wcvb.com/article/police-use-of-force-policies-lack-mental-health-guidelines/9646711Many police use of force policies contain no instructions on how to handle cases where people are sufferring from mental illness.WCVB
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Rejected license platesStates keep lists of both the vanity license plates they approved and the ones they rejected. (It's worth also asking for the rules/guidelines agencies use to determine whether to approve an application.)Sex, drugs, profanity among NC's rejected license platesState DMV rejected 6,000 personalized license platesWRAL
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traffic/parking ticketsMost states and local governments will release some details on all the tickets they issued, but may withhold the name and the identity of the person who received the ticket. Nevertheless, you can still find lots of stories - what officers give out the most tickets, the hotspots and times for ticketing, what kinds of tickets are given out, how fast you have to be going to get a speeding ticket...etc.https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/06/28/where-and-when-traffic-violations-are-issued/MUkGe05XlvNti1P2x9rVYK/story.htmlTraffic tickets Boston Globe
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parking registration permitsMany cities issued permits for parking on the street. But some have no limits on the number each household or buisness can get, so you might find some people have 5+ permits to their name.https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/01/20/boston-where-parking-scarce-but-parking-permits-are-free-and-unlimited/pxiGojsGYC3Ae5LYwpwBRK/story.htmlResidential parking permitsBoston Globe
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Lottery paymentsMost states will provide detailed lists, showing every time someone cashed in a ticket for $600. Take a closer look at the repeat winners. One person in Massachusetts has cashed in more than 20,000 tickets. Also worth noting how often the winner is listed under a trust - raising questions about who really received the money - or whether lottery store owners are among the winners.http://archive.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2011/07/31/a_lottery_game_with_a_windfall_for_a_knowing_few/A small group of people routinely claimed most of the prizes in a lottery game, exploiting a flawBoston Globe
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Animal control reportsLocal animal control offices keep detailed logs/reports of complaints about animals. The data can be used to spot trends or problems.Dog Bites on the Rise in D.C. AreaDog bite incidents jumped more than 100 percent since 2007NBC Washington
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Zoo recordsSome zoos are run or funded by government agencies, making them subject to records requests. But others are independent nonprofits and can ignore requests.http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2017/02/oregon_zoo_staff_disagreed_on.htmlOregon zoo had complicated plan to dispose of death elephantOregonian
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Animal shelter recordsMany animal shelters are run by government agencies, making them subject to public records laws. That means you can ask for a variety of records, such as documents showing the reasons why animals are returned.Wake shelter records show why animals are returnedRecords show why nearly 1,000 animals were returnedWRAL
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roadkill/wildlife recordsSome states track sightings of dead wildlife, allowing you to map or analyze that data. Others have permits people can obtain to salvage deer and other roadkill.
http://www.linkinglandscapes.info/wildlife-roadkill-database.html
http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2018/jan/14/experts-say-salvaging-roadkill-makes-sense-for-num/#/0People in Washington have filed more than 3,000 permits to salvage roadkill for food, taxidermy, looking for hides to display, gathering items for crafts or regalia or making their own fishing lures.Spokesman-Review
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Cell phone billsIn many states, when someone has a cell phone paid for by the government, the detailed bills are public record. Those logs not only show the cost of the phones, but also show where people were when they made the calls and how much time they spent calling various people.https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2011/12/18/chelsea-housing-boss-was-rarely-job/SjiqMoJfBKab1cVnMfEaRM/story.htmlCell phone bills shows housing administrator was rarely on the jobBoston Globe
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Text MessagesIn most states, text messages are public record when related to government business (especially when done on a government device).https://www.wsbtv.com/news/local/atlanta/drag-this-out-texts-reveal-reed-administrations-effort-to-keep-public-records-from-wsb/713133598Texts show official tried to thwart public records requestWSB
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Consumer complaint logs/dataMany consumer protection agencies keep logs of every complaint they receive. That in turn can provide data on which companies/organizations/issues receive the most complaints. In some cases, agencies will provide you with the name of the person who filed the complaint, which can give you access to real people to talk to for your stories.
https://www.consumerfinance.gov/data-research/consumer-complaints/search/?from=0&searchField=all&searchText=&size=25&sort=created_date_desc
https://www.reuters.com/article/us-banks-creditcards-complaints/u-s-complaint-data-puts-spotlight-on-capital-one-idUSBRE85J1LA20120620
Reuters obtained data from US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that indicated which banks had the highest complaint rates
Reuters
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911 Response logsAgencies that run 911 systems log every call and when help was dispatched and arrived at the scene. You can use request and use that data to find out when and where delays occur.https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/data/how-long-is-too-long-to-wait-after-calling-911/How long is too long to wait after calling 911? Some callers waited more than double the goal.Seattle Times
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Calls to city hotlineMany cities operate hotlines (often using the 311 number). It's worth asking for the logs to see what people are calling about and whether the problems were resolved.
https://data.boston.gov/dataset/311-service-requests/resource/2968e2c0-d479-49ba-a884-4ef523ada3c0
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-rat-complaints-abatement-services-met-htmlstory.html
311 data shows which neighborhoods have the most rat complaints
Chicago Tribune
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911 call recordings/transcriptsIn most states, 911 recordings or transcripts are public. Those can shed light on how the government handled key emergency calls.http://www.koat.com/article/albuquerque-police-release-lapel-video-from-omaree-varela-911-call/5054092Recording shows Albuquerque police mishandled 911 callKOAT
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EmailsEmails related to government business are usually public. But you often have to be selective about what email you can request because the volume of documents can be so large. So you might ask for email from certain people on certain dates or ask the government agency to search for email with certain keywords.
https://www.indystar.com/story/news/politics/2017/03/03/indystars-long-running-effort-obtain-pence-emails/98689740/
Mike Pence used AOL email to conduct state businessIndianapolis Star
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Browser historyIn some states, browser history is public - just like email. How 2 reporters busted county commissioners for surfing the Web during public meetingsWhat were commissioners doing on their computers during public meetings?Tampa Bay-Times
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Meeting/Agenda Packet for public meetings (if not already online)
Many cities will distribute the agenda for government meetings. But offiicals generally receive a larger package, with documents related to each agenda item, called a meeting or agenda package. If you are covering an agency, ask for the full meeting packets.
http://cambridgema.iqm2.com/Citizens/Default.aspx
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Meeting minutes (including executive sessions)
Agencies generally prepare minutes for every government agency, including closed sessions. The minutes for the closed session typically become available once the issue is resolved (e.g. a contract is awarded or a person is hired). In some cases, portions of minutes may be permanently withheld, such as those involving advice from attorneys or certain sensitive personnel matters.http://archive.boston.com/business/technology/articles/2009/10/17/mass_has_bet_millions_on_evergreen_solar_which_is_now_facing_financial_uncertainty/ https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/07/27/seven-state-licensing-boards-have-met-without-quorum-throwing-their-votes-into-doubt/zxSfgbW6oGdmhg4qt8O6dO/story.htmlBoard members reported it could be a "PR nightmare" if solar company collapsed after receiving aid from state, according to executive sessions minutes obtained under a records request & At least seven state boards voted on items without a quorum, meeting minutes showBoston Globe
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Calendars Calendars for public officials are typically public - whether kept on paper or electronically.https://psmag.com/environment/a-top-doi-official-had-at-least-six-meetings-with-the-mining-industry-she-then-helped-cancel-a-study-on-the-public-health-effects-of-miningRegulator met with mining lobbyist six times, before killing public health studyPacific Standard
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Government purchasing data (and/or vendor lists)
Most states and agencies keep a list (or multiple lists) of all the government purchases they make. Some also keep a separate list of approved vendors.https://www.usaspending.gov/#/http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/article/20121207/NEWS/312079875State spent hundreds of thousands on dollars to buy bottled water, even when tap water was readily available.Metrowest Daily News
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Government contracts For major purchases, government agencies sign a separate contract with the vendor. Those contracts can sometimes contain interesting details.Indiana State Fair 2015 concert paydays revealedConcert contracts negotiated by the fair commissionThe Indianapolis Star
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Expense reports (including itemized bills)
It's often worth asking for the expense reports of key officials. But be sure to make sure you received the itemized bills for hotels and other major expenses, which would indicate how much the rooms cost per night and whether guests ordered room service, movies, and other services.https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/04/30/former-westfield-state-president-dobelle-pay-resolve-claims-lavish-improper-spending/QURyH0JeM1XFYW5DKNOfYI/story.html
Former Westfield State University president Evan S. Dobelle has agreed to pay $185,000 after allegations he mispent university funds on lavish travel
Boston Globe
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Credit card statements/receiptsGovernment credit card statements are typically public. Convertibles, beer tubes, spa: Auditors probing Granville schools' spendingNC superintendent misused school credit cardWRAL
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Check registersSome government agencies still use checks to pay for many expenses. Dallas ISD spent millions on extras, analysis of check register showsDallas school district spent $57 million on food, trips, promo itemsThe Dallas Morning News
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Payroll records (including overtime and other pay)
Most government agencies will release payroll records showing how much every employee was paid. But make sure you receive the total pay, including overtime, bonuses, and other amounts - not just base sarly - with as much detail as possible.http://cthrupayroll.mass.gov/#!/year/2018/http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-bell-salary-20100715-story.htmlA small city paid its city manager nearly $800,000 a year, according to payroll records obtained by the Los Angeles TimesLos Angeles Times
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Records of settlement payments by government agencies (or copies of the settlements themselves)
Many agencies keep a log of every legal settlement they reach. In some cases, you may have to ask for copies of all the individual agreements and total up the amounts.https://www.app.com/story/news/investigations/watchdog/shield/2018/01/22/nj-police-brutality-cases-secret-settlements/109479668/New Jersey governments spent more than $42 million this decade to cover-up deaths, physical abuses and sexual misconduct at the hands of bad cops.Asbury Park Press
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Employment rosters of government employees (preferably with race, gender, hire date, phone numbers, etc.)
Even if you have a copy of the payroll, it's worth also filing a separate request for the employment rost with as many details as possible, including hire date, date of birth, gender, race, title. You might find some people are missing from the payroll records (either because they were on leave or for other reasons). Or you might be able to use the payroll roster to analyze the diversity of the agency or figure out how many employees are near retirement.
http://www.baystateexaminer.com/articles/new-public-records-massachusetts-state-police-roster
https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/03/25/state-police-pay-higher-than-reported-data-hidden-for-years/pl9kAs38FTIy4pOydr08bJ/story.htmlFound employees on roster were missing from payroll recordsBoston Globe
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financial disclosure reports filed by public officials
Lawmakers are certain other officials in most states are required to file public financial disclosure forms listing their sources of income and investments. It is worth reviewing those forms to see whether there are conflicts of interest.https://efdsearch.senate.gov/search/https://www.sfgate.com/politics/article/State-PUC-Member-Invested-in-Phone-Firm-Nextel-3237422.phpA state utility regulator bought stock in a wireless company he helped oversee, according to finanical disclosure recordsSan Francisco Chronicle
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Employment contractsSome key officials have their own employment contracts with agencies spelling out salaries, bonuses, and perks. Some college president, for instance, have contracts allowing them to receive a year's pay and become a tenured professor once they leave the presidency.NC superintendents' contracts packed with perksWhat perks NC's 115 school superintendents getWRAL
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Internal audit plan & list/log of audits already completed
Many universities, cities, and states have a separate auditing division that prepares an annual list of audits they are planning to do (as well as lists of past audits they have done). Some audits are routine, others are done to investigate problems after specific complaints or requests.
https://www.utsystem.edu/sites/default/files/documents/audit-reports/UT%20System%20Administration%20Annual%20Audit%20Report%20for%20Fiscal%20Year%202017/UT%20System%20Administration%20Annual%20Audit%20Report%20for%20Fiscal%20Year%202017.pdf
https://nypost.com/2012/05/03/audit-finds-teachers-regularly-work-less-than-their-contract-requires/An internal audit found many NY City teachers were teaching fewer courses than the minimum required, costing the school nearly $1 million. New York Post
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Code enforcement violationsMost cities or counties have a division that enforces building and other code enforcement rules - everything from maintaining proper exits to rental units to clearing sidewalks of snow. Ask for the logs of code enforcement violations to see whether there are repeat offenders or check how often the city enforces certain types of violations.
https://data.boston.gov/dataset/code-enforcement-building-and-property-violations
http://boston.cbslocal.com/2017/02/16/south-boston-woman-fined-for-not-shoveling-after-snow-storm/Elderly woman fined $200 for failing to shovel sidewakCBS4 Boston
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Food inspection recordsCities or counties typically have a health division that inspects restaurants, cafeterias, food trucks....
https://data.boston.gov/dataset/food-establishment-inspections
http://www.espn.com/espn/eticket/story?page=100725/stadiumconcessionsHealth inspectors have found violations and concession stands at stadiums across the countryESPN
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Workplace safety records/dataThe state or federal OSHA are responsible for investigating workplace accidents and deaths. They typically keep a log of every inspection they make, as well as the outcome of those inspections. Some have separate lists of workplace fatalities/accidents.https://www.bls.gov/iif/Family farms some of the most dangerous places to workCrop farming & livestock production deaths from 1992 to 2013The Star Tribune
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CAPTA records of children who died from neglect or abuse
Most records of children are confidential. But under the federal CAPTA law, states have to divulge certain details about cases where children are killed by neglect and abuse. The rules are here: https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/confide.pdf
https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/confide.pdf
http://untold-stories.necir.org/
Records show the vast majority of the dead were under the age of three, beaten, drowned, smothered or otherwise abused or neglected by caretakers
NECIR/Boston Globe
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Discrimination/employment complaintsIn some states, it's public when people file complaints alleging employer discrimination - especially if they are a govenrment worker. It's worth asking for the log of complaints both from individual government agencies, as well as any state agency that handles employment discrimination claims.http://www.berkshireeagle.com/stories/former-pittsfield-drug-court-judge-named-in-sexual-harassment-complaint,522522Former judge named in sexual harassment complaintBerkshire Eagle
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internal affairs report logPolice typically log complaints from both citizens and their own workers against officers. They often call those logs of Internal Affairs investigations or complaints.
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FBI filesIt can take months or years, but it's still worth asking for the FBI files for prominent individuals who die (especially if they are older). The request is easy to make. https://foiamapper.com/how-to-request-your-fbi-file/Jesse Helms' FBI file: Death threats, spying and vote-buying accusations1,600 pages of FBI files on the late Sen. Jesse HelmsWRAL
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Police incident reports/Daily police logsPolice often issue press releases or post items on their web sites after a major crime. But it is worth asking for the incident report itself - in case police left out key details. It is also worth checking the daily police logs for your local department regularly in case police neglected to alert reporters to key incidents. You can also collect the data over time to create a searchable index of arrests/crimes in an area.http://kutv.com/news/local/police-report-ex-provo-police-chief-says-sex-was-consensual-but-woman-disagreesChief claimed he had consensual sex with woman, but police report shows woman said otherwiseKUTV
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Dashcam/Body cam videoMany departments record arrests and traffic stops with either dashcam or bodycam video that can shed more light on incidents. The records are generally considered public record, but police may withhold video in some states for pending investigations or by citing privacy reasons.http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2018/04/watch_video_shows_pa_commissioner_telling_cops_to.html#incart_2box_nj-homepage-featuredPort Authority Commissioner caught on video berating police in traffic stop. The Commissioner later resignedNJ Advance Media
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State licensing recordsStates license everyone from architects to security guards. You can generally ask for the list of everyone licensed or disciplinary records for any licensees.http://www.wcvb.com/article/5-investigates-more-than-half-of-teacher-misconduct-involves-sex-1/8225869More than half of teachers are disciplined by state because of sexual misconductWCVB
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School violence dataBoth police departments and schools typically have records on incidents at schools. Colleges are required to make certain crime data available under the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act.Violent incidents frequent at Hawaii middle, high schoolsViolence stats for every middle and high school in HawaiiKHON
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Testing irregularities/cheating Most states regularly receive complaints about testing on standardized state tests. You can ak for those records, as well as any investigations the state has done of cheating.https://www.sfgate.com/education/article/THE-TEACHERS-WHO-CHEAT-Some-help-students-2560689.phpCalifornia received reports of cheating from at least 123 schools. San Francisco Chronicle
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List/log of businesses that received aid from key government programs
If states have programs to give subsidies or aid to specific companies, the records are usually public. But you might have to file separate requests for each subsidy program the government operates. And you typically can't get information about generic tax breaks that people claim on their tax returns that are open to anyone.http://archive.boston.com/business/articles/2010/03/15/tax_breaks_routed_to_disadvantaged_affluent_towns/Massachusetts gave millions of dollars in aid to open offices in affluent towns under a jobs program originally designed to encourage businesses to add jobs in blighted areas, records show. The records also show the state gave aid to McDonalds, a laundry mat, and local pizza shops. Boston Globe
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Reports filed by companies that received subsidies to create jobs
In exchange for receiving money to create jobs, companies often have to file an application and annual reports. Those records are usually public. So you can find out how many jobs companies actually reporting creating later.https://www.wral.com/job-incentives-often-fail/14052627/More than 100 companies named in job announcements since 2009 have since reported no new jobs.WRAL
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WARN reportsThe federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification law requires employers to report plant closures and major layoffs to state agencies. The notices filed with the state are typically public. One caveat: There are lots of loopholes in the WARN law, so then notices aren't required for every major layoffs. For instance, companies can put off filing the notices if they are negotiating with lendors to try to keep the business afloat.
http://www.edd.ca.gov/jobs_and_training/warn/WARN-Report-for-7-1-2017-to-05-25-2018.pdf
http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2018/02/these_11_companies_warned_of_more_than_2000_layoff11_companies_that_are_laying_off_up_to_2000_nj_workers_by_april.html11 Companies plan to layoff more than 2,000 workersNJ.com
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1023/1024 (application for tax-exempt status by nonprofits)
Most major nonprofits are required to file an annual IRS return (called a 990) that is available online through ProPublica, Guidestar or other sites. But in addition, nonprofits typically also file an application for tax exempt status (called a 1023 or 1024) when they first become a nonprofit. Those forms are also public, but you usually have to request them from the nonprofit or IRS. You can also ask the IRS for the full application, including any supporting paperwork. https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/exempt-organizations-public-disclosure-obtaining-copies-of-documents-from-irshttps://www.philanthropy.com/article/Videographer-Who-Took-Aim-at/158353
Project Veritas, the organization created by the controversial videographer James O’Keefe, has received charity status from the Internal Revenue Service.
Chronicle of Philanthropy
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water billsIn some states, utility bills are public from government-run utilities. That's how a research group got the utility bills for Al Gore's mansion in Tennessee, for instance. It's worth also asking for the list of people/businesses who owe the most money.https://www.boston.com/news/politics/2013/02/13/markeys-long-running-residency-issue-remains-a-tale-of-two-communitiesWater bills show US Congressman spent little time at his Massachusetts home Boston Globe
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Property tax recordsProperty tax records are generally public, including details showing whether the person claimed a tax break for occupying the property - often called a residential exemption.http://archive.boston.com/news/politics/articles/2010/10/07/auditor_candidate_claimed_two_property_tax_exemptions/Candidate claims residential property exemption on two different homes at the same time.Boston Globe
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Military service recordsAt least some records are available from the military on former servicemen, including the medals they received. https://www.archives.gov/personnel-records-center/ompf-access-publichttp://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-valor-oct25-story.htmlScores of Americans are claiming medals they never earnedChicago Tribune
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Voting recordsIn many states, basic voter registration records are publicly available showing who is registered to vote and when they voted. (You can't see who they actually voted for.) This is a good document to have both to research specific people running for office and for reference. http://www.cnn.com/2003/ALLPOLITICS/08/12/schwarzenegger.voting/Leading candidate to become California governor hadn't voted in presidential elections in more than a decade. CNN
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Aircraft/flight recordsIf government agencies own or rent aircraft, they should keep detailed flight logs showing how those planes or helicopers are used. It's worth noting if they are being using as expensive taxi services for key government officials, for instance.https://pilotonline.com/news/government/politics/virginia/article_6a6b8d8f-b805-5f63-8f9c-9e065dd0ce3f.htmlState transportation secretary used state plane extensively, records showThe Virginian-Pilot
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