FOIA Advisor

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FOIA Focus: Mike Bell, FOIA Public Liaison, U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Services

FOIA Focus (2015-16)Allan BlutsteinComment
                                                                                            FOIA Focus: Mike Bell

                                                                                            FOIA Focus: Mike Bell

How long have you been working in the FOIA field?

I first worked with FOIA in 2005 when I became a contractor for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.  I began as a document scanner, but was soon processing FOIA appeals.

When did you start at HHS and how did you find your way there?

I began working at HHS in October 2013.  Previously, I was at the Department of Defense for seven years.  During the financial crisis, I worked as the FOIA Manager for the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Financial Stability.

What are your current job duties?

As the HHS FOIA Public Liaison, I do my best to help requesters when they have issues with the FOIA requests.  I answer their questions, provide updates and will push things along if I can.  My duties also involve a variety of other issues for the HHS OS FOIA Division, such as reviewing responses and formulating policies and procedures.

What is the most common FOIA request you receive?

Most of the requests received by my office seek records regarding HIPAA violations investigated by the HHS Office for Civil Rights.

What is the most unusual FOIA request you have ever seen?

At the Department of Defense, I once received a request stating that God was held prisoner beneath the White House helping the U.S. with its policies. The requester submitted a list of questions he wanted us to ask God.

Of all the FOIA matters you have worked on, which has received the most prominent media coverage? 

I have worked on requests covering the prisoners at Guantanamo and requests regarding the Affordable Care Act.  They both received prominent media coverage.

What do you like and not like about working on FOIA matters?

I enjoy reading about history and current events.  Working on FOIA matters allows me to get first-hand knowledge of both.  I do not like the fact that I can’t respond to every FOIA request immediately.  FOIA workers are sort of the middlemen between requesters and the record holders and we can’t please both.

Which FOIA exemption or privilege do you find to be the most challenging and why?

Like many requesters, I find the (b)(5) deliberative process privilege to be the most challenging because it is not always readily discernible whether the disclosure of agency opinions or advice would likely cause harm. 

Where were you born/grow up?

I was born and grew up in Baltimore, MD.  I am a huge Ravens and Orioles fan.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?  

I attended Furman University in Greenville, SC, where I majored in political science.

Where did you start your professional career and what did you do?

After graduating from college, I joined the Air Force and went to Officer Training School.  I served for nine years, obtained a Secret clearance, and that led to me looking for a defense-related job when I left the military.

What was your first job ever?  What did you like or not like about it?

My first summer job in high school was for the Office of the Maryland Attorney General.  I was hired to spend my summer cleaning and organizing the file room for the Consumer Protection Division.  I liked it because I was left alone to figure out the best way to organize it.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I am a huge sports fan and enjoy reading and running.  I am also trying to be a better home cook.

If you could meet any historical icon, of the past or present, who would it be and why?

Alexander Hamilton has always been my favorite historical figure.  He was a brilliant man and his contributions to the founding of the United States have always been underrated, even though I think that is changing and he is beginning to get his due.

What are some of your favorite books?   Movies? 

Hemingway is my favorite author, with The Sun Also Rises as my favorite.  I enjoy watching classic movies.  My favorite actors include John Wayne, Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart.  My favorite actress of all time is Myrna Loy. I have always loved The Thin Man series.

What are you really bad at that you would love to be better at?

I have zero musical talent, so I always wished I could carry a tune or play an instrument.