If America runs on the free flow of information, then Lisette Garcia is making sure the country has a steady supply. The Washington, D.C., lawyer, 37, is celebrating the first anniversary of her firm, FOIA Resource Center, where she works to wrest government documents from a reluctant bureaucracy, using the Freedom of Information Act. Her clients are lawmakers, trade groups and journalists, whose ranks once included her.
Raised in Miami by Cuban emigre parents, Garcia began working at the Miami Herald shortly after graduating from Miami-Dade College in 1997. The college recently named her to its Alumni Hall of Fame for journalism. She also studied government at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and graduated in 2005.
By then she had her eye set on the law. She moved to Washington to attend Howard University School of Law, and graduated in 2008. Studying law helped bring her closer to Judaism and its rigorous emphasis on legality.
Garcia spoke by phone to Washington Jewish Week from Jerusalem, where she is studying for six weeks at the Midreshet Rachel v’Chaya seminary.
We hear a lot about the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. But what is it really?
In order to have a meaningful discourse about our government and what issues are in play, we need to understand them fully. Some things that are national security are off limits for very good reasons. But other things, like how much are we spending on swivel chairs at the Pentagon, people have a right to know how those decisions are being made. Those records, by and large, are available through the Freedom of Information Act.
The problem is, the bureaucracy, sometimes through ineptitude, but sometimes just through stubbornness – the law provides that within 20 working days we should get the records. Typically, citizens or trade groups or lawmakers or, mostly, journalists who put these requests in don’t get the records back for two-to-three years and oftentimes not until they go to court. So the purpose of my consulting practice is to get those records in six-to-eight weeks.
I‘ve done it for a year on my own and previously as a news reporter, banging my head just like the people I’m helping now. But after law school I learned what the law provides.
What attracted you to this kind of work? Is it because you started banging your head against the wall as a journalist?
Totally. I was working in a very open state – Florida. And even there, if you asked for [documents], you had to have the stars aligned. You had to wink three times. You had to do almost magical incantations to get the records. It wasn’t a straightforward process. And oftentimes the people on the other side of the desk opposing you are trained in law, so they were outwitting me every time, and I didn’t know why.
What’s your take on Edward Snowden?
I believe in following the rules. [Laughs] I think there’s always going to be a person who goes off the range and does something that is either criminal or unethical and tries to justify it for the greater good. They have partners in government – bureaucrats who are so invested in some political figure that they’re trying to cover up for, or for whatever reason [they end up] destroying documents or withholding them improperly – that they contribute to the crazies who think they want to go out and be like Zorro or something. I think if we follow the law we get what we need.
How did you get into journalism?
I got on a bus and there was a reporter on the bus, and I made a wisecrack about his skateboard. I wrote every night in my kitchen but I never meant to be a journalist. I had not gone to college yet. So we got chit-chatting. I was going to a job interview for a little side job. The Miami Herald at the time had zone editions. So he said, you should get off with me a stop early and meet my editor. So I did and met my first and best editor, Jon O’Neill. He taught me the craft.
Tell us about your Jewish journey.
My father was not Jewish, my mother was, and we grew up secular. When I came to D.C. for law school in 2005, Sixth & I [Synagogue] was just being rededicated. It was a very good space for me to reconnect [to Judaism], and in a bite-sized way. My best friend at Smith was a ba’alat teshuvah [newly Orthodox]. When I came to law school, we ran into each other at the corner of 16th and K and after that we started studying the Shulchan Aruch [the code of Jewish law].
When I was in my first year in law school there was a class called torts that involves [civil] harm that people cause each other. I’m much more a rules-oriented person, so I was very good at contracts. Torts did not make sense to me – Well, you should have been looking where you were going – like I just don’t think in those terms.
When I really started getting frustrated, I said, I know where all these rules come from, and I started studying Torah again. This is 2014, so it wasn’t a fast process. Last year I came to Israel for the first time and backpacked for three weeks, and when I came back I was ready. I joined Kesher [Israel, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Georgetown]. It was hard to switch from Sixth & I, but it was time.
What’s it like being in Israel at this moment?
I cannot tell you how fortunate I feel to be here at this moment. I was at the Kotel the other day, when one of the rockets was intercepted. You could hear it. It was pretty close to our heads. Everybody looked to the left, looked to the right, saw nobody was hurt and kept on davening. They continued doing what they were there to do.