AP

Food stamp issue leads to Supreme Court review of public access to government documents

Apr 20, 2019, 9:40 AM | Updated: 9:51 am
In this April 9, 2019, photo, Argus Leader investigative reporter Jonathan Ellis and news director ...
In this April 9, 2019, photo, Argus Leader investigative reporter Jonathan Ellis and news director Cory Myers in the newsroom in Sioux Falls, S.D. In 2010, reporters at South Dakota’s Argus Leader newspaper came up with the idea of requesting data about the government’s food assistance program. They thought the information about the $65-billion dollar-a year program, previously known as food stamps, could lead to a series of stories and help them identify possible fraud. But the government didn’t provide everything the paper wanted. Trying to get the data has taken the paper more than eight years and landed the case at the Supreme Court. (Briana Sanchez/The Argus Leader via AP)
(Briana Sanchez/The Argus Leader via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — In the summer of 2010, reporters at South Dakota’s Argus Leader newspaper decided to request data about the government’s food assistance program, previously known as food stamps. They thought the information could lead to a series of stories and potentially help them identify fraud in the now $65 billion-a-year program.

They sent a stream of what they thought were routine requests for information to Washington.

Government officials eventually sent back some information about the hundreds of thousands of stores nationwide where the food program’s participants could use their benefits. But the government withheld information reporters saw as crucial: how much each store received annually from the program.

Trying to get that data has taken the paper more than eight years and landed it at the Supreme Court, which will hear the case Monday.

Argus Leader news director Cory Myers, who directs a staff of 18 at the Sioux Falls paper, says getting the information is about “knowing how our government is operating” and “knowing what government is doing with our tax money.”

A supermarket trade association opposing the information’s release argues that the information being sought is confidential. The Supreme Court’s decision in the case could be narrow or could significantly impact the interpretation of a law that grants the public access to government records.

The Argus Leader is owned by USA Today publisher Gannett and is the largest newspaper in South Dakota. It wrote about the government’s initial release of information. But Jonathan Ellis, one of the reporters behind the requests, said there’s more to learn if the paper gets what it’s seeking.

Ellis said he would like to write about the companies who profit the most from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program , called SNAP. He would like to analyze how successful efforts to involve farmers’ markets in the program have been. And he is still hoping to use the data to identify stores that seem like outliers, an indication of potential fraud.

Megan Luther, the other reporter behind the requests, said the paper has been fighting for the information for reasons beyond “there’s a good story there.” Luther, who now works for InvestigateTV, said it’s “transparency 101″ that “taxpayers have a right to know where their money is going.”

The paper has gotten close to getting the data before.

After initially opposing the information’s release, the federal government reversed course after the Argus Leader took it to court and won. But the Virginia-based Food Marketing Institute , a trade association representing grocery stores and supermarket chains, stepped in to continue the fight. The group lost an appeal, and the paper hoped it would soon get the data. Then the Supreme Court took the case.

The Food Marketing Institute, which declined interviews before Monday’s arguments, has said in court papers that the public already has access to a lot of data about SNAP. But SNAP sales data by store is confidential “much the same way how much business grocers do in cash, credit, debit, checks or even gift cards is confidential,” wrote Food Marketing Institute president and CEO Leslie G. Sarasin in a blog post last month.

To decide whether the information should be released, the Supreme Court will have to interpret the federal Freedom of Information Act.

It gives citizens, including reporters, access to federal agencies’ records with certain exceptions. In the Argus Leader’s case, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, argued that disclosing the data the paper sought was barred by FOIA’s “exemption 4.” It tells the government to withhold “confidential” ″commercial or financial information” obtained from third parties.

It will be up to the court to determine whether what the paper is seeking counts as “confidential.”

The Trump administration is backing the grocery stores in arguing against the information’s release. The Associated Press is among dozens of media organizations that have signed a legal brief supporting the Argus Leader.

Myers, the Argus Leader’s news director, said that in the years it has taken for the paper’s case to reach the Supreme Court, the paper has continued to do the kind of investigative reporting it was attempting to do in seeking the SNAP data.

In South Dakota, he said, “there are more stories and more malfeasance than one newsroom can root out, but we certainly try.”

The case is 18-481 Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media.

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Food stamp issue leads to Supreme Court review of public access to government documents