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Newspapers denied access to Federal information

by staff

Hear that sound as the water swirls around the toilet bowl?

It’s the United States Department of Agriculture processing The Record-Courier and Tahoe Daily Tribune requests to obtain a report on the investigation into the most expensive land swap in U.S. Forest Service history – the purchase of Zephyr Cove’s Dreyfus estate.

Both newspapers were denied access to the report, which allegedly contains no criminal findings. We’d like to know that for sure, though, and expect other people would too, specifically the taxpayers who are footing the bill for the investigation and any public costs associated with the $38 million land swap.

The requests were denied under the Freedom of Information Act. What a misnomer. The statute just gives the government one more avenue to keep the public in the dark.

As the process drags on, Douglas County taxpayers also are being denied access to some of the most beautiful land on this good earth – the historic Dreyfus Estate at Zephyr Cove.

While USDA officials hide the truth, you are missing out on access to 3,000 feet of sandy beach at Lake Tahoe, a wetland, meadow and creek. The property also is home to several types of sensitive plants and animals. There is a caretaker’s cottage and the Dreyfus mansion itself – a 12,500-square-foot building.

What little we know we learned from an August 1998 executive summary of the auditor’s report which instigated the investigation. U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons went to bat for us, sending a letter to USDA Secretary Dan Glickman asking that the information be made public.

We appreciate his efforts and lament the fact that a simple request for public information to which anyone is entitled – whether you report for a newspaper or read one – has to take so much time and energy.

“Because I am a taxpayer” ought to be reason enough for the USDA to disseminate public information.

If there is no finding for criminal wrongdoing, what’s the holdup? The USDA’s secrecy certainly has caught the attention of Douglas County commissioners eager to see the property open to the public and back on the county’s tax rolls.

County Commissioner Don Miner, an outspoken opponent of the Forest Service shenanigans, says he’s ready to go to court to obtain the document.

The Park Cattle Co. would like to know what it says. They’ve already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the project, based on a federal promise they would be allowed to develop the property.

Just be prepared for a corresponding drop in the water pressure shortly after the USDA gets a copy of their requests for information.