Since the time when the Freedom of Information Act was first implemented nearly a quarter-century ago, federal departments and agencies have handled increasing numbers of requests for access to their records. To meet the growing challenges of the Act, federal agencies have had to establish and develop a variety of new positions and procedures in discharging their FOIA responsibilities. This has created a range of professional opportunities for government employees who strive together to provide the public with as much information as responsibly can be disclosed under the Act, and to do so as expeditiously as possible with available agency resources.
"I'm proud to say that in fiscal year 1991, we had a 100% on-time response rate for all FOIA requests," says GayLa D. Sessoms, FOIA Officer for the Securities and Exchange Commission. She heads a staff that includes an attorney, two branch chiefs, 12 research assistants and two clerks. Out of the 2,000 FOIA requests they received last year, only 65 were appealed. One went to litigation.
Most FOIA requests received at the SEC come from commercial entities seeking information on their competitors, or from private investors. Those persons interested in obtaining information on corporations required to file reports with the SEC are directed either to SEC's Public Reference Room in Washington, D.C. or to the reference rooms maintained in two of its eight field offices.
"Current events have a definite impact on the nature and type of requests we receive," says Sessoms. These requests often involve the files of ongoing investigations. "Almost all of these requests come from the media," Sessoms observes.
The SEC has an in-house computer system that greatly facilitates its processing of FOIA requests. This system was created to keep track of the voluminous public filings required of American corporations and also to maintain the records of the many enforcement actions taken by the SEC.
"We have an automated case-tracking system for FOIA processing," says Sessoms. "When we receive a request for information under the FOIA, we log it into the system." Then a research assistant assigned to the request conducts a computer search for all documents within its scope. Such records could be maintained in any of the SEC's many divisions, but each division has a FOIA liaison responsible for locating records and sending copies of them to the FOIA Office for decision.
When a denial of information under the FOIA is appealed, all supporting documentation, as well as any recommendations, are forwarded by Sessoms to the SEC's Office of the General Counsel for disposition.
Sessoms is a native of Washington, D.C. In 1978, after graduating from Lincoln University with a degree in Political Science, she joined the Justice Department's Tax Division as a Paralegal Specialist in its FOIA and Privacy Act Unit.
In 1983, Sessoms accepted a position with the FOIA Office at INS, where she worked as an Appeals and Litigation Specialist. In 1985, her responsibilities expanded when she became a Program Manager in that office. While developing and conducting FOIA and Privacy Act training for INS's 61 decentralized field offices, she began writing Privacy Act systems notices.
At the same time, Sessoms pursued an interest in legal work at Antioch College, where she completed coursework on a masters degree in legal studies. She hopes to continue her interest in law by enrolling at a local law school part-time.
In April of 1990, Sessoms was offered the position of FOIA Officer at the SEC. She has continued her training activities as an instructor for the Justice Department's FOIA training programs and also for the American Society of Access Professionals. A member of ASAP since 1985, she has served on its Board of Directors as Treasurer and as Secretary. This year she has been nominated to be Vice President of that organization.
Sessoms says, "I'm living testimony to the fact that there are great opportunities for those of us working with the FOIA. I started as a paralegal specialist with Justice and now I'm the head of an office, working in an area that I find challenging and enjoyable after thirteen years."
In this issue, FOIA Update reinstitutes its popular "FOIA Focus" feature, which regularly appeared in FOIA Update for several years during the 1980s.
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