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FOIA Update: FOIA Focus: John D. Heine

FOIA Update
Vol. VII, No. 1

FOIA Focus:  John D. Heine

In addition to the major federal departments, the FOIA also applies to various regulatory agencies -- independent commissions empowered to regulate distinct activities of American industry. Typically, these agencies are required by law to disseminate certain types of records freely to ensure that the general public is routinely informed about matters of national concern such as the use of nuclear energy, the securities market or interstate communications.

Even before the FOIA was enacted, these agencies had established public reading rooms where both individuals and businesses had access to the agencies' public filings and where a variety of document disclosure services were provided at nominal cost. Under the FOIA, however, anyone may request access to the traditionally non-public files of a regulatory agency, such as internal correspondence or investigatory files. As a result, these agencies have had the challenging task of incorporating their FOIA responsibilities into existing disclosure programs.

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"In my opinion, the Securities and Exchange Commission has a propensity to disclose information, since that is its business," says John D. Heine, chief of the SEC's Freedom of Information and Privacy Act Branch. "Most FOIA requesters are interested in obtaining financial information about businesses and corporations rather than information about the inner workings of the SEC."

The SEC was established in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929. "The idea was that the government should ensure that enough information got out to the investing public so that people could make informed decisions about investing in companies," Heine notes.

Over eleven thousand corporations that issue stock publicly are required to file a variety of reports with the SEC. In addition, all brokerage firms, investment advisers and investment companies must register with the Commission.

A sizable portion of the general public has a great interest in the public filings of the SEC. "You have to remember that the Commission receives information that people use to make money," explains Heine.

To fulfill its broad public disclosure mandate, the SEC has maintained a public reference room at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. since 1935. It presently has similar facilities in its New York and Chicago regional offices. It also contracts with a copying company whose on-site and off-site staff provides public users with a wide range of information services -- including microfiche and magnetic tape -- at nominal cost.

"Often when we receive FOIA requests," says Heine, "we refer people to the public reference room, because so many of our documents are publicly available."

Last year, the Commission received nearly two thousand FOIA requests for agency records. Approximately forty of these were also Privacy Act requests submitted by persons who believed they were or might have been under investigation by the SEC for possible violation of security laws.

"Of course," remarks Heine, "even though we're a disclosure-oriented agency, we have to be careful to protect sensitive investigatory data in our own files." In this regard, the SEC is like any other federal agency with investigatory responsibilities.

Heine's office handles all FOIA and Privacy Act requests received at the Commission's Washington, D.C. headquarters, as well as those received at each of its fifteen regional and branch offices.

In his office, there are two technical assistants who are responsible for tracking and processing correspondence, plus seven research assistants who are responsible for locating and reviewing all requested records and drafting responses.

In making their disclosure determinations, Heine's research assistants consult extensively with the various operating divisions and support offices of the SEC. When confidential business information is involved, as is often the case at a regulatory agency, the business submitter is contacted so that its disclosure objections can be obtained, analyzed and acted upon.

"I really can't overemphasize how much I rely on the dedication, expertise and judgment of the research assistants," observes Heine. "They make their decisions on a page-by-page basis. I just review what they do."

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Heine was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. He attended Drury College in Springfield, Missouri, and graduated in 1968 with a bachelor's degree in political science.

After graduation, he entered the United States Army and served two years in northern Bavaria, stationed in a small village bordering on East Germany.

Upon his discharge from the Army, Heine decided to resume his academic pursuits. He received a fellowship in political science from the University of Chicago and spent the next five years engaged in graduate studies at that university.

After receiving an offer of employment at the SEC, Heine consulted one of his professors and received very specific advice and encouragement about information disclosure work.

"He was born in Nazi Germany and he had firsthand knowledge of the enormous impact of information in a bureaucracy," Heine explains. "He was very concerned about our government's information policies and practices and had great respect for the SEC."

In 1975, Heine accepted a position as a FOIA research assistant at the SEC in Washington, D.C. and soon found that he derived great satisfaction from such work. Four years later, he was promoted to chief of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act Branch, a position which he still enjoys.

"Information is central to decisionmaking and politics," concludes Heine, ever the student of government and political science. "If you see how information is transmitted, you understand how things work in a bureaucracy."

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Updated August 13, 2014