The American Red Cross has long been known for its efforts to dispense relief in times of disaster alongside the federal government, but denial of a recent public records request has drawn criticism.
Of particular interest: the organization sought exemption for disclosing how it spent Hurricane Sandy relief funds in excess of $300 million in the aftermath of the disaster, calling that a “trade secret.”
The records request came from ProPublica reporter Justin Elliott.
From his report:
The Red Cross did give some information about Sandy spending to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who had been investigating the charity. But the Red Cross declined our request to disclose the details.
So we filed a public records request for the information the Red Cross provided to the attorney general’s office.
That’s where the law firm Gibson Dunn comes in.
An attorney from the firm’s New York office appealed to the attorney general to block disclosure of some of the Sandy information, citing the state Freedom of Information Law’s trade secret exemption.
The documents include ‘internal and proprietary methodology and procedures for fundraising, confidential information about its internal operations, and confidential financial information,’ wrote Gabrielle Levin of Gibson Dunn in a letter to the attorney general’s office.
If those details were disclosed, ‘the American Red Cross would suffer competitive harm because its competitors would be able to mimic the American Red Cross’s business model for an increased competitive advantage,’ Levin wrote.
The letter doesn’t specify who the Red Cross’ ‘competitors’ are.
Even though it’s possible that the Red Cross could be granted an exemption on trade secret grounds, one non-profit expert is scratching his head.
Doug White, director of the fundraising management program at Columbia University, said that while it’s possible for organizations like the Red Cross to have trade secrets, it isn’t clear how the way Hurricane Sandy money was spent would qualify.
Ben Smilowitz of the Disaster Accountability Project, a watchdog group, added, “Invoking a ‘trade secret’ exemption is not something you would expect from an organization that purports to be ‘transparent and accountable.’”
In an age where transparency is becoming more and more important to the masses, the “trade secret” argument might not be in the organization’s best interests, especially with a disaster as monumental as the one in which info has been requested.
Why do you think the Red Cross is fighting the request for information on how Hurricane Sandy funds were spent? Have you ever had dealings with this organization? What were your experiences?
Share your thoughts in our comments section.
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