May 15, 2002
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the information presented in your correspondence.
I have received your letter in which you sought assistance concerning the application of the Freedom of Information Law to the Friends of the North Country, Inc. ("Friends"), which is "a private, not-for-profit, tax exempt corporation..." Although Friends is not a governmental entity, you wrote that:
"...we have contracts with New York State (NYS) Housing Trust Fund Corp., New York State (NYS) Affordable Housing Corp. and Franklin County to provide administrative services for Housing Rehabilitation Programs. With regard to NYS Affordable Housing Corp., we are considered a 'grantee'. With regard to the NYS Housing Trust Fund Corp., we are considered a 'contractor'. Lastly, with regard to the Franklin County Disaster Recovery Initiative, we are considered a 'sub-recipient'."
As you may recall from our earlier correspondence, the Freedom of Information Law is applicable to agency records, and §86(3) defines the term "agency" to mean:
"any state or municipal department, board, bureau, division, commission, committee, public authority, public corporation, council, office or other governmental entity performing a governmental or proprietary function for the state or any one or more municipalities thereof, except the judiciary or the state legislature."
Based on the foregoing, as a general matter, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to entities of state and local government in New York. I do not believe that Friends could be characterized as an agency or that it has a responsibility to comply with the Freedom of Information Law.
Nevertheless, in consideration of its relationships with governmental entities, it appears that some of Friends' records may fall within the scope of the Freedom of Information Law. For purposes of that statute, the term "record" is defined to include:
"any information kept, held, filed, produced, reproduced by, with or for an agency or the state legislature, in any physical form whatsoever including, but not limited to, reports, statements, examinations, memoranda, opinions, folders, files, books, manuals, pamphlets, forms, papers, designs, drawings, maps, photos, letters, microfilms, computer tapes or discs, rules, regulations or codes."
Based upon the language quoted above, documents need not be in the physical possession of an agency to constitute agency records; so long as they are produced, kept or filed for an agency, the courts have held they constitute "agency records", even if they are maintained apart from an agency's premises.
For instance, it has been found that records maintained by an attorney retained by an industrial development agency were subject to the Freedom of Information Law, even though an agency did not possess the records and the attorney's fees were paid by applicants before the agency. The Court determined that the fees were generated in his capacity as counsel to the agency, that the agency was his client, that "he comes under the authority of the Industrial Development Agency" and that, therefore, records of payment in his possession were subject to rights of access conferred by the Freedom of Information Law (see C.B. Smith v. County of Rensselaer, Supreme Court, Rensselaer County, May 13, 1993).
Perhaps most significant is a decision rendered by the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, in which it was found that materials received by a corporation providing services pursuant to a contract for a branch of the State University that were kept on behalf of the University constituted "records" falling with the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law. I point out that the Court rejected "SUNY's contention that disclosure turns on whether the requested information is in the physical possession of the agency", for such a view "ignores the plain language of the FOIL definition of 'records' as information kept or held 'by, with or for an agency'" [see Encore College Bookstores, Inc. v. Auxiliary Services Corporation of the State University of New York at Farmingdale, 87 NY 2d 410. 417 (1995)].
Insofar as records maintained by Friends are "kept, held, filed, produced or reproduced...for an agency", such as the New York State Housing Trust Fund Corporation, i.e., for the purpose of providing administrative services that would otherwise be provided by that entity, I believe that they would constitute "agency records" that fall within the scope of the Freedom of Information Law. This is not to suggest that a relationship of that nature would transform Friends into an agency required to comply with the Freedom of Information Law, but rather that some of the records that it maintains are maintained for an agency, and that those records would fall within the coverage of that statute.
In other circumstances in which entities or persons outside of government maintain records for a government agency, it has been advised that requests for those records be made to the records access officer of that agency. Pursuant to regulations promulgated by the Committee on Open Government (21 NYCRR Part 1401), the records access officer has the duty of coordinating an agency's response to requests for records. In the context of the situation that you described, if Friends maintains records for the Housing Trust Fund Corporation, a request should be made to the Corporation's records access officer. To comply with the Freedom of Information Law and the implementing regulations, the records access officer would either direct Friends to disclose the Corporation's records in a manner consistent with law, or acquire the records from Friends in order that he or she could review the records for the purpose of determining rights of access.
To reiterate, the responsibility to give effect to or comply with the Freedom of Information Law would not involve Friends, but rather the government agency whose records are maintained by Friends on its behalf.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman