Nebraska Sues Feds in Case Out of Kafka

LINCOLN, Neb. (CN) – A Nebraska resources district accuses the federal government of “flagrant stonewalling” in 4 years of “evasive responses” to a simple request for how many acres of Nebraska farmland are being irrigated. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has the data in its Geographical Information Systems database, but says it’s secret, because of an exemption for “personnel, medical, or similar records.”

     So the Central Platte Natural Resources District has had to sue Uncle Sam in Federal Court.
     The district manages natural resources for 11 counties along the Platte River.
     It says it provided technical and financial support to help start and administer the very GIS database from which it seeks the information. But the USDA and its Farm Service Agency are “simply attempting to frustrate (its) efforts to obtain the GIS data.”
     The resources district says its first request for the information was denied because of an exemption protecting “personnel, medical, or similar records.”
     On appeal, the district was given the names and addresses, types of crops, and the farm number and tract numbers of landowners and farm operators. But Uncle Sam would not release information on the number of acres planted and irrigation practices used.
     And, the district says, the information it did get was in tabular format, rather than GIS format, making it impossible to glean any of the information it had sought from the records provided.
     The district says its informal request for the information in GIS format was denied, so it requested the information a second time, after an appellate court ordered disclosure of similar information in another case.
     The district says release of the information is in the public interest, as the USDA uses the GIS database to monitor compliance. The information will help the public to determine whether the USDA is “catching cheaters and lawfully administering its subsidy and benefit program,” according to the complaint.
     But no. This time the USDA denied the request by claiming that the resources district is not a cooperating entity – a claim which is “patently incorrect and ignores myriad cooperative efforts underway among CPNRD and various USDA agencies, including FSA.”
     So the resource district says it appealed again, and neither defendant responded.
     The district still wants to know how many acres are being irrigated. And it wants declaratory judgment that the defendants violated the Freedom of Information Act and the Administrative Procedure Act so flagrantly as to warrant referral to the Merit System Protection Board.
     The resource district is represented by Thomas R. Wilmoth and Donald G. Blankenau.

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