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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Public Body's Bank Account Numbers Not Exempt from FOIA (!)

As we've reported before on this blog, some of the more "interesting" opinions from the Public Access Counselor have come in the form of advisory, or non-binding opinions. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to view these opinions, since the PAC only publishes binding opinions on its website, and binding opinions are few and far between. A reader sent a copy of an advisory opinion that is worth reporting on as I suspect many public bodies will be surprised by the outcome.

The Village of North Henderson received multiple FOIA requests for copies of the Village's bank statements. The Village released the bank statements as requested, but redacted the account numbers from the statements. The requesters filed a request for review with the PAC, claiming that the Village violated FOIA by (1) not citing an exemption for the redactions and (2) redacting bank account numbers without a proper justification.  2015 PAC 33825; 33837; 33838 (consol.)

The PAC agreed with the requesters on both points. I don't disagree with the PAC's ruling on the first  argument - the failure by the Village to identify any exemption or explain its rationale for redacting the account numbers is a violation because FOIA does require the public body to identify a specific exemption and provide an explanation for why that exemption applies.

However, the PAC's ruling that the public body was not justified in redacting bank account numbers is surprising, to say the least. The PAC concluded that only personal bank account information is protected under the "private information" exemption of 7(1)(b). Consequently, the public body could not rely on that exemption.

In my opinion, the PAC took too narrow of an interpretation of FOIA. There is no question that a public body's finances (i.e., how much money a public body holds in a particular account, how it spends that money, etc) is important public information. But why does an individual have the right or need to know the bank account numbers of a public body, particularly in this day and age? The protection of public funds should be just as important as the protection of private funds. This opinion makes no sense, and the harm it could create certainly seems to outweigh any public benefit (if there is any) in the release of account numbers.

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf


  1. That is a pretty shocking and silly opinion by the PAC. The fundamental flaw in the PAC's analysis is relying solely on the phrase "personal financial information." The exemption for "Private Information" also includes "unique identifiers," and a bank-account number is clearly and unquestionably a unique identifier.

    The PAC's crabbed reading of the statute would have to extend beyond just the account numbers for public bodies--it would appear to extend to the bank account of any entity, corporations, not-for-profits, and (arguably) any bank account held by more that one individual.

    Hopefully, somebody comes to their senses at some point...

  2. I couldn't have said it better myself.

  3. I think the issue here, and I am very familiar with the N. Henderson FOIAs, is that there was essentially now way to determine which statements, etc, went which which accounts - so there was no way for the citizens to effectively watch how public funds were spent.

    I don't think bank account numbers of public bodies should be released, however, there must also be some way to positively identify which accounts certain statements belong to. Maybe if public bodies had to either release account numbers OR provide another system for the public to properly distinguish between accounts.