One Arizona Man's Quest To Save Deleted Government Data

By Casey Kuhn
Published: Thursday, February 23, 2017 - 7:01am
Updated: Thursday, February 23, 2017 - 2:26pm
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(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Russ Kick searches his database of recovered or discovered government documents.
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
A former puppy mill dog peers through a cage at the Arizona Animal Welfare League.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture completely scrubbed thousands of animal-welfare documents from its website. After outcry from advocates and questions from legislators on both sides of the aisle, some - but not all - of the documents have been reposted. One Arizona man said the fight isn’t over to protect public information – and keep government transparent.

In Russ Kick’s apartment tucked away in the Tucson suburbs, piles of paper sit on the floor next to his 3-year-old laptop.

"If you start here, yeah, the floor is pretty high priority stuff I need to get to soon, it's right there waiting for me," Kick said, laughing. "And then, the even higher priority stuff that's almost made it, is on the scanner, waiting to be scanned."

The papers hold public information and documents. They’re waiting to be scanned, labeled and uploaded onto Kick’s online archive. It’s called MemoryHole2, so named as a second iteration born from his mistrust of authority and obsession for collecting data.

"All those things kind of came together with this idea that I need to start a website where I post these important government documents that, for some reason or another, are not easily available," he said.

Kick's day job is as a writer and anthologist. Because he works from home, he multitasks and will work as documents scan or upload. Lately, though, a lot of his free time is going to the Memory Hole project.

His most recent effort shines a spotlight on animal-welfare documents produced by USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

"I was very surprised to see these detailed reports, because it is such a touchy topic," Kick said.

Early February, APHIS took down all online published animal welfare documents, including any violation and enforcement reports.

"Those were naming names of various facilities, whether they’re animal labs or roadside zoos or big amusement parks, you actually had the detailed reports about what was going on there," Kick said. 

He had already taken certain reports, but couldn't grab every single document because of the sheer number. Kick said advocates or people with just one or two PDFs have already been in touch to share what they have with him.

The USDA said the documents were taken down in response to an ongoing lawsuit about personal information on them and that the decisions were not final.

Animal advocates were outraged, like the Arizona Animal Welfare League in Phoenix.

"We can sue, we can hunt down these records, but all that costs money and we're a non-profit," said Michael Morefield, spokesman for the welfare league.

Morefield pointed out about a dozen Yorkshire terriers just rescued from a puppy mill and rehabbing in the kennels.

He said the records helped dog-rescue groups save puppy mill dogs, especially from legal puppy mills with poor conditions that merit an APHIS violation.

“Some of them had exposed wires, or no heat or air in their building, so the dogs are on the brink of death," Morefield explained. "These violations are really important to see because it helps us educate the population.”

The records are still available through Freedom of Information Act requests, where you can write and ask for documents directly from the agency.

But that takes time and money.

Morefield said when the documents were so easily accessible and online, those resources would instead go directly to caring for the dogs.

He said the searchable reports helped consumers looking to buy a puppy from a pet store. Now, even if you have a breeder’s name and information, you cannot look them up online.

“That transparency is gone and you cannot prove any violations to these pet stores.”

A Trickle Of Republished Documents

A few weeks after the takedown, APHIS reposted a first batch of Federal Research Facility inspection and annual lab reports.

Those are a fraction of the original documents, and do not include breeders or kennels. The agency has said while it reviews which documents to republish, more may come back online.

Members of Congress, including several Arizona Representatives, sent a letter to the president urging the agency to restore the entire online database. And transparency government watchdogs agree.

“It is an overreach, it is an overreaction,” said Alex Howard, a director at the Sunlight Foundation. The Sunlight Foundation is a Washington D.C.-based government transparency advocacy group.

Howard said the USDA’s reasoning based on litigation should have resulted in a more narrow response. And the timing for the decision was right as agency leaders changed.

“I think it is a government agency insulating itself against some legal liability under a new administration.” Howard said.

Back in Tucson, Russ Kick was expecting to save and republish government documents on his own time under whichever new administration took power.

"Every administration likes to hide things, they all do, but some are worse than others," Kick said.

He wonders – what else is out there?

"I didn't even think of the APHIS reports. What else haven't I thought of?" Kick said. "What else got overlooked? I did back up the FDA, [it] has a bunch of adverse events for like vaccines, pharmaceuticals or food. And again they name names, they name the brands - those seem likely to go away."

As the USDA continues the trickle of reposting animal welfare documents, Kick is doubling down to publish any public data he can get his hands on in case that disappears too.

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