August 3, 2005
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 information presented in your correspondence.
As you are aware, I have received your inquiry. Please accept my apologies for the delay in response.
You have asked whether a request made under the Freedom of Information Law may be made for "an auditor’s file during an on-going audit or do you have to wait until a formal assessment has been issued." In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, the Freedom of Information Law is applicable to all agency records, for §86(4) defines the term "record" to include:
"...any information kept, held, filed, produced, reproduced by, with or for an agency or the state legislature, in any physical form whatsoever including, but not limited to, reports, statements, examinations, memoranda, opinions, folders, files, books, manuals, pamphlets, forms, papers, designs, drawings, maps, photos, letters, microfilms, computer tapes or discs, rules, regulations or codes."
Based on the foregoing, as soon as documentary materials exist, they constitute "records" that fall within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law.
Second, 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 (i) of the Law.
Third, although §87(2)(g), the provision pertaining to internal government records, potentially serves as a basis for a denial of access, due to its structure, it often requires substantial disclosure. Specifically, that provision states that an agency may 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.
I note that in a case that reached the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, one of the contentions was that certain reports could be withheld because they were not final and because they related to incidents for which no final determination had been made. The Court rejected that finding 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, 87 NY2d 267, 276 (1996)].
In short, assuming that the audit is typical or routine, those portions of the auditor’s file, including audit work papers [see Polansky v. Regan, 81 AD2d 102 (1981)], that consist of statistical or factual information should be accessible, unless a separate basis for a denial of access can properly be asserted. If, for example, the audit focuses on or refers to specific individuals, it is possible that portions of the records in question may be withheld on the ground that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" [see Freedom of Information Law, §87(2)(b)].
I hope that I have been of assistance.