August 2, 2007
FROM: Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the facts presented in your correspondence.
I have received your letter and hope that you will accept my apologies for the delay in response. You asked whether “the report document presented to the Audit Committee of the Board of Education by the District’s Internal Auditor [is] available to the general public.”
In this regard, as a general matter, the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a) through (j) of the Law.
The only basis for denial of apparent relevance is §87(2)(g). That provision permits an agency to withhold records that:
"are inter-agency or intra-agency materials which are not:
I. statistical or factual tabulations or data;
ii. instructions to staff that affect the public;
iii. final agency policy or determinations; or
iv. external audits, including but not limited to audits performed by the comptroller and the federal government..."
It is noted that the language quoted above contains what in effect is a double negative. While inter-agency or intra-agency materials may be withheld, portions of such materials consisting of statistical or factual information, instructions to staff that affect the public, final agency policy or determinations or external audits must be made available, unless a different ground for denial could appropriately be asserted. Concurrently, those portions of inter-agency or intra-agency materials that are reflective of opinion, advice, recommendation and the like could in my view be withheld.
Because the provision cited above refers to “external audits”, it has been contended that internal audits may be withheld in their entirety. Nevertheless, there is nothing in the language of the Freedom of Information Law that pertains specifically to internal audits or that exempts them form disclosure. The fact that external audits must be disclosed does not suggest other records, such as internal audits, are exempt, in their entirety, from disclosure. On the contrary, as stated earlier, all records are presumed to be available, and silence in the law concerning a certain kind of record does not confer confidentiality, but rather a presumption of access. In this instance, an internal audit constitutes "intra-agency" material that is accessible or deniable, in whole or in part, based on its contents.
The paragraph quoted above, other than the first sentence, was quoted in full in Gannett Co. v. Rochester City School District [684 NYS 2d 757, 759 (1998)], and the court agreed with my opinion that portions of internal audits consisting of “statistical or factual tabulations or data” must be disclosed pursuant to subparagraph (I) of §87(2)(g).
I note, too, that the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, dealt with a similar contention relating to a different aspect of §87(2)(g). In Gould et al. v. New York City Police Department [89 NY2d 267 (1996)], the agency denied access on the basis of §87(2)(g)(iii), which grants access to "final agency policy or determinations", on the ground that the records sought were not final and did not relate to any event whose outcome had been finally determined. As in Ganett, in which the agency contended that because external audits are accessible, internal audits can be withheld in their entirety, the New York City Police Department argued that because final determinations are public, records other than final may be withheld in their entirety. The Court of Appeals rejected that argument and stated that:
"...we note that one court has suggested that complaint follow-up reports are exempt from disclosure because they constitute nonfinal intra-agency material, irrespective of whether the information contained in the reports is 'factual data' (see, Matter of Scott v. Chief Medical Examiner, 179 AD2d 443, 444, supra [citing Public Officers Law §87[g]). However, under a plain reading of §87(2)(g), the exemption for intra-agency material does not apply as long as the material falls within any one of the provision's four enumerated exceptions. Thus, intra-agency documents that contain 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' are subject to FOIL disclosure, whether or not embodied in a final agency policy or determination (see, Matter of Farbman & Sons v. New York City Health & Hosp. Corp., 62 NY2d 75, 83, supra; Matter of MacRae v. Dolce, 130 AD2d 577)..." [Gould et al. v. New York City Police Department, 89 NY2d 267, 276 (1996); emphasis added by Court ].
The Court also dealt with the issue of what constitutes "factual data" that must be disclosed under §87(2)(g)(I). In its consideration of the matter, the Court found that:
"...Although the term 'factual data' is not defined by statute, the meaning of the term can be discerned from the purpose underlying the intra-agency exemption, which is 'to protect the deliberative process of the government by ensuring that persons in an advisory role [will] be able to express their opinions freely to agency decision makers' (Matter of Xerox Corp. v. Town of Webster, 65 NY2d 131, 132 [quoting Matter of Sea Crest Constr. Corp. v. Stubing, 82 AD2d 546, 549]). Consistent with this limited aim to safeguard internal government consultations and deliberations, the exemption does not apply when the requested material consists of 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' (Public Officers Law 87[g][I]. Factual data, therefore, simply means objective information, in contrast to opinions, ideas, or advice exchanged as part of the consultative or deliberative process of government decision making" (id., 276-277).
In sum, insofar as the record at issue consists of statistical or factual information, I believe that the District is obliged to disclose.
I hope that I have been of assistance.