Monday, April 06, 2015

Amtrak pen trumps Freedom of Information Act sword

Written by  Frank N. Wilner, Contributing Editor
Amtrak pen trumps Freedom of Information Act sword
John Mica, the Republican pol from Florida, alleges something fishy with Amtrak’s hamburger prices. Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito have a beef that Amtrak’s president is chosen by a board of directors rather than facing Senate confirmation.

Dudes, you’ve got a tired old bloodhound. Were Clara (“Where’s the beef?”) Peller, of Wendy’s burger-advertising fame, still alive, she’d direct you to the Amtrak Law Department, better labeled the Department of Peculiar Shenanigans.

While cash-strapped Amtrak is scaling back retiree healthcare insurance subsidies, its law department is buying black markers in carload lots to obliterate customer complaints from prying public eyes. Astoundingly, the Freedom of Information Act’s sword is no match for the Amtrak Law Department’s black markers.

Could a handful of customer complaints made public really damage a brand that has 31 million souls eager to purchase tickets each year? Amtrak’s own managers once complained that conductors inherited from legacy railroads were “untrainable.” Yet the brand survived and grew. Seriously, what’s a mouse or two in the aisle in a nation where cockroaches and bedbugs are occasional inhabitants of even prideful homes and four-star hotels?

So what is the Amtrak Law Department up to with those black markers purchased from the public purse? Any public relations practitioner worth their daily dram of Scotch will remind you how Tylenol actually burnished its brand through open and honest public communication following a dreadful product tampering episode in 1982. Exxon (“You talkin’ about me?”) should have been so savvy when its oil tanker Valdez ran aground in Alaska in 1989 with horrific environmental results.

Amtrak’s latest carload order of black markers followed a Freedom of Information Act request by MuckRock.com, which sought access in June 2014 to customer complaints relating to Amtrak lounge cars. After nine months of exchanging emails with Amtrak’s Law Department, MuckRock.com received 318 records, with virtually all so smeared with obliterating black marker ink that you’d think the customer complaints contained data on coalition troop movements in Iraq; the notes of whistleblower Edward Snowden; some of the private emails of Hillary Clinton; or, gasp, more selfies of Carlos Danger, the alias of former Congressman Anthony (“look at my genitals”) Weiner.

Among the records received by Muckrock.com:

• One with all 28 lines obliterated by a black marker, leaving nothing to be read.

• One with 21 of 22 lines obliterated by a black marker, leaving only “no snack car” to be visible.

• One displaying only, “the buffalo wings was missing a wing.” Another, allowing to be read, “Daughter states there was a roach in her mothers food. The cndr apologized and wrote a report.”

• One showing, “again, his sausage was cold and his wife had black curly hair in her,” was followed by 12 lines fully obliterated.

It would appear that the Amtrak Law Department is more than conversant with Lady Macbeth, who spoke, “Out damned spot! Out I say! What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?”

Wait. You say the Amtrak Inspector General might shine the sunlight of disinfectant on this lawyer legerdemain?

Sorry. As Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) revealed in 2009, an outside investigation concluded that the Amtrak IG was “substantially impaired” by the Amtrak Law Department as to the IG’s “independence and effectiveness.” You see, the Amtrak IG, responsible for ferreting out waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement, is designated by, and reports to, the very agency being monitored. By contrast, the Department of Transportation IG is Senate confirmed, independent of agency control, and may only be removed by the President of the United States.

Nationally syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin reported that even internal Amtrak Law Department documents requested by the Amtrak IG for review were “prescreened” (lawyer talk for taking black markers to the substance). As MuckRock.com learned, Amtrak’s black marker culture extends even to Aunt Sophie’s complaint over the quality of blueberry muffins aboard the Sunset Limited.

Hillary should have it so good in the investigation of her private emails and her handling, as Secretary of State, of the 2012 Benghazi attack. Does it surprise you that Hillary was a close chum at Wellesley College with Amtrak’s General Counsel Eleanor Acheson?

We asked the Amtrak public relations folks, “What’s with all these blacked out lines that must be more than protecting the privacy of names?” The response: The blacked out text “pertained to info outside the scope” of the Freedom of Information Act request. In fact, the FOIA statute protects from release only names of private parties, Social Security numbers, telephone numbers and legitimate trade secrets.

Say it ain’t so, Joe Boardman. Could there really be a daily meeting of Amtrak attorneys who debate and decide whether the words, “mouse droppings on the lounge car floor,” are an observation rather than a customer complaint and are thus ineligible for public scrutiny?

As a United Airlines flight attendant once advised passengers, “We hope you enjoyed giving us the business as much as we enjoyed taking you for a ride.”

(Frank N. Wilner is author of the book “Amtrak: Past, Present, Future,” published by Simmons-Boardman Books.)

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