Researching the Public Record - How to Find Out Anything (2012)

How to Find Out Anything

9 Researching the Public Record

In the first season of the HBO series The Wire, most of the detectives investigating drug dealing in a Baltimore housing project spend their time tailing suspects, tapping phones, or roughing up the locals. But one veteran detective has a better idea—he decides to follow the money. He dispatches his detectives to look through tax assessment records for a nightclub where the kingpin’s gang congregates. They’re trying to find out whose name is listed on the tax records and then to head to the Maryland Corporate Charter office. It’s there, he explains, that they should rifle through the paperwork on all corporations and limited liability companies licensed to do business in the state and write down every name they see. He wants to find out about any front companies owned by the drug dealers to hide their profits. The detectives will find those front companies by looking for the name of the registered agent who set up the companies on behalf of the kingpin. He wants to show how the drug proceeds end up in shell corporations and eventually the pockets of corrupt officials by looking for suspects in the file cabinets not by kicking in doors.

It’s not every day you see such a concise illustration of public records research on a TV show, but there it was—the scriptwriters were making the dusty detective work of sifting records for useful facts almost as exciting as a street-level gunfight. Every private eye, every enterprising reporter, every diligent lawyer, and even TV detectives know one secret about looking up information: There is a treasure trove of factual information hiding in plain sight in documents and databases maintained by public agencies.

There is a treasure trove of factual information hiding in plain sight in documents and databases maintained by public agencies.

About Public Records

Public records are essentially the facts that various branches of government compile as they go about enforcing, interpreting, or creating the law. They’re the documents and data we create by virtue of living in a society that needs to know something about us to function smoothly. As the name quite clearly says, public records are accessible to anyone who wants to see them. Unlike private records—contracts, bank accounts, tax returns, health records, and the like, which are the business of only the subject, authorized users, or litigation lawyers—public records belong to the people.

Inasmuch as public records are maintained by government agencies, you’ll do well to remember where they are produced. So hark back to eighth-grade social studies and those memories of the three branches of government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. In the United States, both the federal government and the fifty state governments follow the same three-branch structure. The executive branch agencies are where the vast majority of the records you’ll be interested in come from, because they enforce the laws the legislatures pass, though court and legislative sources can contain interesting data about people and companies as well.

At first blush, the idea of rooting around in bureaucratic files sounds about as exciting as cleaning out a closet. But just when the idea of running queries in databases starts to pall, I think about the rice pudding restaurant.

In a part of Little Italy in New York that transformed from a one-time Italian ghetto to the trendy and ultra-expensive, boutique-filled area now known as Nolita, is a restaurant that serves only rice pudding. Now, interesting restaurants can be found all over New York, but even by New York standards, it’s hard to imagine that demand for rice pudding could be enough to sustain such a specialized operation. What was most unusual was the restaurant’s location, on a now-gentrified stretch of Spring Street where high-end boutiques and celebrity-filled lounges have replaced clam bars and self-serve laundries that once dominated the street. Rents are astronomical.

A reporter friend of mine was curious about the pudding shop, so we decided to do a bit of sleuthing to find out more about the place. Our first move was to look up the owners of the building in which the store operated. In New York City, real estate records are available on a database called ACRIS, hosted by the city’s Department of Finance. The address led us to the owner’s name, in this instance a realty company. The name of the company didn’t mean anything to us, so our next step was to see who the owner of the company was. The New York state secretary of state maintains a publicly available database of corporation and business records. We queried the database about the realty company and got the name of the principal owner. The name of the owner still didn’t make sense, so that’s when we decide to Google the owner’s name. Among the list of results was a news story that mentioned the wife of a known mob boss, which also matched the name of the owner of the realty company.

Coincidence? Perhaps, but we decided to check it out by taking another dive through the ACRIS database, this time using the name of the realty company to see what other properties the company controlled. Within ten minutes, we had the answer. The company owned or controlled a number of buildings throughout Little Italy and NoLita. Another Google search on some of the addresses pulled up news stories about federal investigations into certain racketeering activities. By piecing together these ho-hum real estate records and corporation ownerships and combining them with Google searches for additional information, we discovered a possible explanation for why a rice pudding restaurant could make a go of it in the middle of the trendiest neighborhood in New York. A month or two later, the New York Times reported that the restaurant’s owner and others were arrested and charged with operating a $21-million-a-year gambling operation out of the basement of the rice pudding building. (There was never any evidence that the restaurant was involved in any of the alleged operation, and ever since the case became public, the names in the records have been changed.) The point is, public records can tell stories that other sources can’t.

Records come into existence in the course of ordinary business as a way to serve some important public policy goals. For example, one worthwhile goal is to make driving on the highway safer. One way states do that is by requiring those who want to use the highway to prove that they’re competent drivers. They have to take a test and obtain a license. That’s a sensible regulation. We share the public highways, and I need to know that you know how to drive. The entire real estate industry runs on the ability to check titles, liens, and ownership. The public benefits from knowing if a physician is licensed to practice medicine or if a pilot is qualified to fly a particular type of aircraft. You might like to know, too, if someone convicted of a sexual offense has moved into your neighborhood after release from custody or whether your bank is still in good standing with the bank examiner. Corporation and company records, business records of all types, permits, licenses…they’re all part of the public record and are exactly the type of documents you need to consult to help you find out anything. As we’ll see, they’re collected by government agencies at all levels from behemoth federal cabinet departments right down to the rural county courthouse, and with just a few exceptions, they’re ready for you to have for the asking.

Types of Public Records

Public records can be categorized into three neat pigeonholes: records that anyone can look at by walking in off the street (or searching online), records that are available for inspection by anyone who can prove a legal need to see them, and records that a public agency doesn’t routinely make public but that must be disclosed when asked.

Records Available for Public Inspection

Documents or databases that are open to public inspection are the most public of public records. And we can be thankful that most of these records are “digitally born,” making it much easier to obtain them. Back in the day when forms and filings were recorded on paper, a researcher had to trudge from one clerk’s office to another, a process every bit as laborious as it sounds. E-records, though, can be quickly loaded up to a server for all but instant access. Plus, many agencies now are scanning their archival records to make items that were filed originally on paper readily accessible on the web.

Restricted Access

Certain records are maintained by public agencies but access to them is restricted to individuals or companies that can prove they have a legal interest in them. Likewise, access to vital records—birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses—is entirely restricted to those who have a legal right to them. Such individuals include the subject of the document, the next of kin, parents or legal guardians, executors of an estate and lawyers.

Records That Must Be Requested

Government agencies create documents or keep records of their work that are not routinely made available for public inspection. These materials can be provided to the public, but they are produced only when someone asks for them. In the event that an agency refuses to hand over the records, a citizen may file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) letter to formally request that the agency produce the information. We’ll talk about the FOIA and its state equivalents later in this chapter.

Before we get into the details of public records research, look at the personal record you (hypothetically) already have left. You were born (birth certificate) and grew up somewhere (school records, phone number in the phone book). In your teenage years, you finally mastered parallel parking (driver’s license), graduated high school (diploma), and registered to vote (voter registration rolls). You went to college (another diploma) and did a stint in the military (military records, discharge documents). You got married (marriage certificate) and bought a little house in the suburbs (mortgage lien). Maybe you learned how to fly a plane (pilot license). Imagine, then, after years of probity and rectitude, you decide to make a midlife career change to pursue the criminal arts.

Unfortunately, it turns out that you’re a third-rate crook. You get arrested, arraigned, and tried (court proceedings, conviction record). The judge sentences you to a trip to jail (inmate locator records). That led to a loss of income (bankruptcy filing) and divorce (divorce decree). And awaiting your personal exit from this mortal coil is the ultimate document in your cradle-to-grave progression through this earthly life: the death certificate. In between, there are dozens of other documents, some public, many not, lying around government file cabinets throughout the country. Next time you can’t sleep at night, don’t count sheep. Instead, try to figure out where those customs forms you filled out on the plane coming back from spring break in Cancún now reside today.

Now think how interesting it would be to find out the details contained in those documents on a person or company. Mining these documents for the nuggets of information they hold is what public records research is all about. Inside these documents and computer records you’ll likely find data on:

· Assets

· Addresses and phone numbers

· Company information

· Criminal records

· Licenses

· Prison inmates

· Property records

· Sexual offenders

· Voter registration

Every day credit agencies and marketing companies tap into this reservoir of information about people. They compile data on individuals to find out about where they live and what they own and make estimates of income based on Census Bureau data. The same sources they use are available to you. Public records research can provide insight about people and companies that can’t be dredged up with a Google search.

Public records research can provide insight about people and companies that can’t be dredged up with a Google search.

Yet there’s a big but in records research. Billions of available records are held by thousands of agencies. As you can readily discern, there are lots of interesting records available for you to search. Getting to all of them is the problem. On one hand, researchers have a vast collection of information to consult; on the other hand, finding the right office, data collection, and record to search is a bearish problem simply because of the number of searchable offices and records.

Although I think self-sufficiency in information gathering is a great thing, you probably should not attempt your initial public records research by yourself. Instead, rely on the guidance of professionals, including websites that do the legwork for you and commercial sites that gather all this disparate information and roll it into a single, digestible package. Only with a good understanding of which records can be retrieved and where you can get them should you venture out into the wilds of the .gov domain. If you’re up for the trek, query the index and request your documents from a public office—you will soon find yourself knee-deep in facts that you would have missed without looking into what the government knows and shares. Later in this chapter, I’ll show you where to start with federal, state, and county searches to at least get you to the records trailhead. How far you go down the trail is entirely up to you. But in any event, get a solid grounding in the deep details of records searching with some instruction from the pros.

Finding Public Record Information

The Sourcebook

When I was a rookie, first starting out in research and couldn’t tell a certificate of incorporation from a FOIA request, I was bewildered by the process of making sense of all the records available. There were too many agencies and too many records to think about. So I set out to figure out how to master the process. Much of what I know about public records research comes from The Sourcebook to Public Record Information, now in its tenth edition. Much as I would like to be your sole guide through the thickets of research, I will instead turn you over to the masters. Authors Peter Weber, Michael Sankey, and Peter J. Weber have compiled the standard work for public records research, and I cannot recommend this book enough. As do most experienced librarians and professional researchers, I still rely on it. It’s an extremely detailed—more than 1,900 pages!—how-to guide for shaking the most fruit out of the bureaucratic tree. In light of the exhaustive treatment the authors give the topic, the overview of public records in this chapter should be considered merely an introduction. In addition to pointing to where the records are kept and describing what identifiers will help you locate specific records, the Sourcebook also takes you by the hand through the process of getting records from specific agencies and explains what you need to have in hand to get the right record. Your library probably has the book on the shelf, but if you find that the type of research you normally conduct requires public records retrieval, by all means, buy a copy of the Sourcebook. The website from its publisher BRB Publications gives away links to some free records and publishes a helpful tip of the day.

I’ll also mention Zimmerman’s Research Guide. Andrew Zimmerman is a law librarian who compiled a list of interesting websites for the benefit of his colleagues. His collection of links, which include many public records sources with brief annotations, is now a free service from Lexis and a worthy source of advice on where and how to look up a variety of public records.

Websites for Public Record Searches

Because thousands of county, state, and federal offices hold records of one type or another, your ability to harvest all that fruit bumps up against some practical limitations: Checking with each agency yourself takes forever. Luckily, you can save yourself hours of searching by using a content aggregator. Rather than having to query the 3,000+ county clerk offices or myriad state and federal agencies individually, these pay-for services have done the legwork for you electronically and amassed those records into one giant database. Avail yourself of the now-computerized records from filing clerks around the nation. If you could bring an old-school 1920s gumshoe back to life, he would be amazed at how easy it is to whip through millions of public records from the comfort of a computer chair. The services are not cheap, ranging in price from $19.99 up to $100 or more per search, depending on the amount of detail you need, but they do offer detailed information from public records conveniently and quickly.

Avail yourself of the now-computerized records from filing clerks around the nation.

Commercial Services

Intelius is a commercial service for people searches, background checks, and criminal records retrieval, with reports fashioned from sources nationwide. So too is KnowX, which will provide answers for background information within the limitations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. (You must promise not to use the information for hiring or insurance decisions, or establishing credit.) NETR Online is a database of environmental filings, but it does double-duty as a general-interest public records database for company information.

If you work for an organization with access to LexisNexis or Westlaw, then you have a way to search public records elegantly and quickly. Lexis subscribers have access to Accurint and other people-finder records; Westlaw subscribers have a variety of databases for people finding, company information, and other public records. If you don’t have access, see if your local librarian does.

Free Services

Some free sites assist in public records searches, in addition to BRB Publications. The Knight Digital Media Center provides a first-rate collection of public records tutorials that contain links to a variety of agencies. The Free Public Records Search Directory from Online Searches LLC is helpful for state agency searches. And Virtual Gumshoe has many links to free resources.

Searching on Your Own

If you do decide to try your hand at turning up records on your own, my hat is off to you for your courage. To aid you in this demanding quest, here is the 50,000-foot view of the sources that can deliver the goods. Consult each site for details on the type of records the agency holds, the scope of the holdings (for example, how far back records go electronically and what needs to be requested from the archives) and what you’ll need to provide the agency with to find what you want.

Federal Records

Federal agencies, courts, and Congress have useful information but, by far, the records held by the executive agencies under the president are where the vast majority of interesting stuff will be found.

The records held by the executive agencies under the president are where the vast majority of interesting stuff will be found.

Federal Agencies

Popular infomercial pitchman Matthew Lesko, who once was a late-night TV staple, worked himself up into a lather proclaiming how easy it is to get free government grant money. He might want to expand his cheerleading for government largesse into public records research. As a source for studies, official data, white papers, and expertise on an encyclopedic range of subjects, nothing compares to the U.S. government. At the risk of sounding as hyperbolic as the hyperthyroidal Mr. Lesko, the U.S. gives away priceless quantities of information. Every federal agency, within the limits of its legal marching orders to regulate one or more sectors of American society, opens up its doors to the information it’s collected. As a researcher, commit to memory the web address for the U.S. government’s information portal: Once you step through this doorway and see how much information the government produces, your life as a researcher will change forever.

Although records about people are primarily the province of state governments, the feds track everything from political donations by individuals (Federal Election Commission) to legal firearms manufacturing (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives) to investment advisers (Securities and Exchange Commission).

Take a spin through the “A-Z List of Agencies.” It shouldn’t be too hard to find the right agency that might hold the records you want to see. Where could you find statistics on the number of late-flight arrivals into Dallas-Fort Worth for that article you’re writing on vacation travel with kids? Try the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). If you’re the marketing director for a large hospital conglomerate and want to know about trends in gerontology, how about looking up reports from the Administration on Aging? Need to understand the pernicious effects of carbon tetrachloride, which was commonly used as a dry cleaning agent some years ago? The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry stands at the ready to tell you.

Name a subject and chances are good that a federal agency has something to say about it. The State Department will give you the rundown of the political situation in Timbuktu, while the Department of Energy tracks the price of gasoline in Newburyport, Massachusetts. While they’re doing that, the Animal and Plant Inspection Service is fretting about the expansion of European larch canker in the United States, and the U.S. Geological Survey is watching its seismographs for earthquakes from coast to coast. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) looks for microbes in your body; NASA looks for them on Mars. The list goes on and on because the government requires all the people and companies it regulates to provide it with information, which you can then read. The .gov domain is home to an immense array of discrete bits of data that are available to the public as part of the government’s function as protector of the citizenry.

The reason agencies gather all these data is that they help them carry out their regulatory duties. Why does the flight attendant tell you that your “tray tables must be secured in their upright position” before landing? Because the FAA requires them to say so. And where does the FAA get off telling people what to do? The administration was empowered by Congress to make all rules and regulations necessary to make air travel safe. Like most federal agencies, the FAA studies what needs to be regulated, proposes rules, publishes rules, lets the public comment on them, and then adopts the rules. Each agency publishes its proposed rules in the federal government’s daily newspaper of rule making, the Federal Register; for a rule to have legal effect, the agency must subsequently publish the final rule there as well. All the rules that federal agencies write are compiled into the multivolume rule book, the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). The CFR is arranged by title, and each title is broken down into parts as a way to make it somewhat easier to find things. (The studies and databases that agencies publish are how they share information they collect for the purpose of promulgating regulations.) The Federal Register and the CFR are available from the U.S. Government Printing Office’s website, as well as from

In the case of the flight attendant’s admonition about the tray tables, it’s mandated by Advisory Circular 121-24C (“Passenger Safety Information Briefing and Briefing Cards”), which replaced Advisory Circular 121-24B (February 1, 1999). These advisories implement regulations from Title 14 CFR Parts 121 and 135, which set out the rules that pertain to air carrier operations in which flight attendants are present. That should ease your mind on your next bumpy descent into O’Hare.

The benefits of using the websites of the federal government as your personal research library are many. You’ve already paid for the information with your tax money, so take it, it’s yours. The databases and reports are vetted by professionals and so can be considered reliable (or, at least, official). The federal government has invested in web technology, so the sites are easy to use and usually offer queryable databases, news, and in-depth research. But best of all is their focus on specific subjects. Federal websites opt for depth over breadth. Deep diving into environmental data at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is deep indeed.

You’ll be doing yourself a great service if you spend an afternoon clicking through the different links from Answers to many a research question can be found from the right federal agency. Let the site be your guide to your (information) rich Uncle Sam.

Federal Courts

Most federal research is aimed at shopping the storehouses of information from the executive branch agencies and offices. But court filings are also useful sources of some juicy data. In these public filings are details of disputes that name names, cite information about private finances, and detail the conduct that resulted in a lawsuit. For a lawyer to prevail over an opponent, the rules of civil procedure require that an attorney provide detailed and verifiable facts to the court. Because court records are public documents (with the exception of certain cases involving minors, national security, or trade secrets and other sensitive topics), you can help yourself to this information as well. In court records you’ll also find other goodies like real estate data, bankruptcy information, and allegations of bad doings by people and companies, backed up with facts and reports.

Your entry point to federal court documents is PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), a subscription service for retrieving the dockets and documents for federal cases filed in district, appellate, and bankruptcy courts. Both individuals and companies may obtain subscriptions. PACER charges a very modest fee for downloading documents. Access to court documents costs 8¢ per page, though it may be raised to 10¢ in 2012. The cost to access a single document is capped at $2.40, the equivalent of thirty pages under the 8¢ pricing. The cap does not apply to name searches, reports that are not case specific, or transcripts of federal court proceedings. Instructions on how to use PACER can be found on its website.

The docket is the comprehensive list of documents filed with the court during a trial. When a case commences in court, it is assigned a docket number, and from then on, all papers, motions, and other documents submitted to court in the case are filed on the docket under that number.

The docket number is the unique identifier for each case and thus is critical to federal case research.

The docket number is the unique identifier for each case and thus is critical to federal case research. Generally, the docket number looks like this: 02 civ 0897 (JGM). Translated, this would be the docket number for a case that commenced in 2002, is a civil case, and is the 897th case opened in the court that year. The initials in parenthesis refer to the judge to whom the case was assigned.

The federal court systems grapple with issues of federal law. Individuals and corporations make federal cases out of copyright infringement, civil rights complaints, bankruptcy, violations of antitrust trust law, securities law, and other matters of U.S. law.

Federal Legislation

Making laws is proverbially an ugly business, but in a civil society ruled by law, not by individuals, it’s a necessity. Modern technology hasn’t made the process any less unsettling, but at least it’s easier to lay your hands on proposed and adopted legislation.

To see what Congress is doing to move us closer to that more perfect union, consult Thomas, the legislative server at the Library of Congress. Thomas, named for President Jefferson, is a searchable database that simplifies the process of retrieving new laws or laws under consideration, known as bills.

The process of enacting legislation is complex; should you need a primer on how to look at the guides at Thomas itself, read “What You Can Find on Thomas” to get a better orientation than the Schoolhouse Rock version provides. And now, in some very broad, oversimplified strokes, here’s how laws are made:

A bill is introduced into the House or Senate, where it is sent to the appropriate committee for review. The bill is given the third degree by a subcommittee; fully 90 percent of bills die here, never to be heard from again. But if there is political appetite and will to move the legislation, the bill is reported out of committee and debated and voted on by the chamber that introduced it. If it passes, it is now known as an engrossed bill and is sent to the other chamber, where the process starts all over again. If the other chamber approves it, the bill now is known as an enrolled bill and is sent to the president to be signed into law or vetoed. If the president approves the bill, it becomes a public law and is added to body of the federal law, collectively known as the U.S. Code.

At Thomas, you can tune in to bills at any step in the process. Thomas should also earn the gratitude of every nonlawyer for providing plain-English explanations of what each of the bills is intended to do and for explaining exactly where the bill stands in its life cycle between introduction and presidential approval. Should you need to dig through pending legislation, don’t just dive in; legislative research is a specialty of law librarians and it takes some special training to learn the lingo. Ask for help from a reference librarian, preferably a law librarian, to navigate this excellent but complicated compilation of federal lawmaking.

State Records

Using my state college math skills, I multiplied fifty states by twenty-five agencies and discovered that the product totaled up to…too many links to print here. Rather than inundate you with an indigestible laundry list of URLs to all the state agencies and their corresponding databases of public records, I’ll give you a strategy to keep things simple.

Every state agency has a national association for the benefit of the administrators. That association, in turn, can do the laborious work of providing links to the office in each state. Not only will you get the URLs you need, you’ll enjoy the added benefit of the association’s explanations of what the state agencies do.

By looking at the associations for the state agencies, you’ll also learn what types of records you might find on any given site. The banking administrators for each state, for example, generally provide a list of the institutions they regulate. You’ll probably find a survey of bank data: who is solvent and who might not be, how institutions are meeting their community reinvestment obligations, and which banks may be in trouble.

The information resources from state agencies vary considerably from state to state. (The management of herds of buffalo and wild horses is not a state regulatory problem as urgent in New Jersey as it is in Montana.) But even with obvious state differences, the regulations and data required to govern are essentially the same from one jurisdiction to another. Every state will have an executive agency, under the control of the governor, to oversee and regulate certain industries as well as to provide fundamental services to citizens and companies within the state’s borders. In every state, however, you may count on certain agencies to offer records about the companies and people who fall within their purview. Let’s take a look at some of them.


In every state, an agency exists to set up and regulate state-chartered banks. (Note that banks may also be federally chartered.) You should be able to find, at minimum, the names of the banks that fall under the state’s purview. In addition to information on banks, states usually regulate non-bank financial service companies, like check-cashing emporia. If the state is liberal with the information it publishes, you might be able to also see

· Banking regulations

· Enforcement actions against misbehaving institutions

· Licenses and bank charters

· Consumer information


The insurance business is also regulated at the state level. The complexities of insurance law and regulations are too knotty to summarize here, so rather than try to explain the differences among states, I entrust you to the website of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. What I can tell you is that insurance companies are domiciled in a certain state and then must be licensed to operate in other ones. The best guide for information on individual insurance companies is the multivolume set A.M. Best Insurance Reports. It’s also available online, but at a subscription price designed for institutional subscribers. Your library might get the online version in addition to the books. Look to the state department of insurance website for particular regulations and insurance laws.

Motor Vehicles

Since the passage of the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act, states now must follow standard guidelines that limit access to driver’s license information. Rather than a state-by-state hodgepodge of laws, with some states giving away license data for the asking and others putting the information under serious access control, the federal law set one standard for natural materials, which said only agencies and businesses with a need to know may obtain the records. Check with the state in question for the regulations governing access, as there may be considerable differences among the rules of different jurisdictions.

Secretary of State (Corporations and Business Entities)

While the U.S. secretary of state flies around the globe negotiating treaties and attending international conferences as the nation’s chief diplomat, state secretaries of state tend to lead much less glamorous lives. They certify election results and, in most states, oversee business and corporation records. The work may be humdrum, but in many ways the records that the secretary of state collects and manages are some of the most useful of all to the business researcher.

In many ways the records that the secretary of state collects and manages are some of the most useful of all to the business researcher.

Of the primary duties of a secretary of state at the state level, the election certification process has the most political consequence—does Florida on election night 2000 ring a bell?—but certifying the results of elections is mostly a ministerial function. For the researcher, the real pot of information gold under the secretary’s care are the business filings. Use business corporation searches to find the names of owners and addresses of principal places of business for all companies operating within a state’s borders. Please note that a company does not need to be incorporated in a state to operate there. Many corporations trace their legal birth to Delaware, where the laws and courts are management friendly, but live out their business lives elsewhere. (A Delaware corporation operating in Albany, New York, is considered to be a “foreign corporation.”)

Like the federal executive agencies, state executive agencies provide the lion’s share of useful data. Each state’s home page will serve as the portal to that state’s agencies and their databases. And as courtesy to the states, long united, the federal portal links to all of the state government home pages.

State Department and Primary Area of Responsibility

Links to State Agencies, Officials, or Administers Can Be Found at…


National Association of State Departments of Agriculture:

Attorney general

National Association of Attorneys General:

Alcoholic beverages

National Conference of State Liquor Administrators:

Banking and financial institutions

Conference of State Bank Supervisors:


National Association of State Budget Officers:


National Association of Secretaries of State:


Association of State Correctional Administrators:

Court administration

National Center for State Courts:


Council of Chief State School: Officers


Environmental Council of the States:


National Governors Association:


National Association of County and City Health Officials:


National Council of State Housing Agencies:


National Association of Insurance Commissioners:


Interstate Labor Standards Association:


National Association of State Medicaid Directors:

Motor vehicles

American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators:


National Association of State Park Directors:


American Probation and Parole Association:


American Association of State Troopers:


National Association of State Energy Officials:


National Association of Secretaries of State:

State university

American Association of State Colleges and Universities:

Taxation, revenue, and finance

Federation of Tax Administrators:


National Association of State Technology Directors:


American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials:

Workers compensation

International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions:

State Courts

For quick access to the websites of courts in each of the states, refer to the list maintained by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). Not only will its website link you to state sites but the center had enough foresight to include a guide to each court’s structure to show how litigation matters flow through the courts. Court hierarchy can be confusing to the nonlawyer and downright baffling to the novice. Case in point: Try to explain why it is that in New York, the lowest court is known as the Supreme Court and the highest court is the Court of Appeals. And where does a litigant bring the initial appeal from the Supreme Court? To the Court of Appeals, right? No, it goes to the Appellate Division first. I don’t report this to confuse you but only to toughen you up for the court research ahead.

State courts are where the grittiest legal action takes place. While federal courts listen to disputes about bankruptcy, securities fraud, and tax matters, state courts hear cases about homicides, narcotics, arson, and other criminal matters. (They also hear slip-and-fall cases and routine commercial disputes in civil court.) Because each state’s court system is unique in how it hears evidence in trial courts and structures the appeals process, consult your state’s court administration site for guidance. NCSC provides all the links you’ll need.

Among the records available through the clerk of the court are dispositions of criminal and civil matters and, in those instances in which a judge writes a decision in a case, a copy of the opinion. (Decisions are formally collected in a series of books known as “case reporters” and can be found in your county law library—most counties have one.) To obtain court records, you’ll need to know at least the name of the party or parties in the case and preferably the docket number of the action. You also should know the court in which the case was being heard and, ideally, the name of the judge to which it was assigned. The website for the clerk of the court will detail the particulars needed to retrieve case information.

To obtain any court records, you’ll need to know at least the name of the party or parties in the case and preferably the docket number of the action.

State Legislative Information

With the exception of the unicameral Nebraska legislature, state lawmaking closely mirrors the federal process. There is a senate and an assembly, and the two chambers at the state level mimic the Washington, DC, pas de deux right down to the hearings, transcripts, and ultimate delivery of an enrolled bill to the governor for signing into law. For links to state houses, the excellent services of the National Conference of State Legislatures has the lowdown of what is going on legislatively among the fifty states. Each state maintains an official state library or even a state law library as a repository of its legislative histories, featuring bill texts, committee reports where available, and the final version of bills signed into law by the governor.

By looking at the bills, you can track state lawmaking to see what legislators are thinking about particular topics. But more important, committee reports accompanying the bill are a great source of insight into the reasoning lawmakers used to come up with their legal language. Lawyers call it legislative intent. Not all bills at the state level have them, but for those that do, the reports will clue you in to what lawmakers were trying to achieve when they wrote the law the way they did.

Administrative Rule Making

Like their federal counterparts, state executive agencies are given power by the legislature to promulgate regulations to enforce their little part of the law. Rules are drafted, published in the state version of the Federal Register, and then published again once the final rules have been adopted. The collection of state rules is known as the administrative code (which should not be confused with the laws of the state, the statutes). To see what an agency says about a particular topic, consult the appropriate admin code. Links to state codes are available as a courtesy to members of the National Association of Secretaries of State; membership is free, so sign up!

UCC Filings

The Uniform Commercial Code, known universally as the UCC, is a model law governing the day-to-day business transactions. Since the fundamentals of buying and selling, leasing, writing checks, selling things in bulk, and issuing investment securities are the same in Maryland and Nebraska, one set of laws serves many states (tailored by each state legislature to serve local needs). The UCC was drafted by an august group of legal scholars from the American Law Institute and the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws and is used throughout the nation.

County Records

According to the National Association of Counties, the go-to source for all things county related, there are 3,068 counties in the United States. And every one of them employs a clerk to receive, file, and retrieve a variety of records. A county may be the smallest governmental unit to concern itself with detailed record keeping, but county clerk’s offices are where some of the most informative filings are located. They are rich hunting grounds for factual information, particularly liens and real estate records.

County clerk’s offices are rich hunting grounds for factual information, particularly liens and real estate records.


A lien is a claim on property that exists until a debt is repaid. For liens to be useful, they have to declare to the world that they exist, which is why they are standard fare at most county clerk offices. Liens come in many varieties, but what they all represent is evidence of a loan. Among the most common types of liens are the following:

· Mechanic’s lien: Contractors or subcontractors working on a property file these to protect their right to get paid, since they can’t unhammer the nails or unplumb the pipes in cases of nonpayment. These types of liens are also known variously as construction liens, suppliers’ liens, or architects’ liens, but the intent is the same.

· Tax lien: Tax authorities may place a lien on a property for nonpayment of taxes.

· Attorney’s lien: The barrister insures his fee.

· Judgment lien: This satisfies a legal judgment after a court ruling.

· Maritime lien: Liens may be filed against a ship for sailors’ wages, pollution claims, and other issues arising from a ship’s operation.

Liens are filed on a form known as UCC-1, which is created by the Uniform Commercial Code.

Real Estate Records

Of all the records to be found in county or municipal files, none is more interesting than the seemingly humdrum real estate record. Not merely a legal warehouse of prices paid and deeds transferred, real estate records can also document a person’s wealth, change of ownership, and prices paid for specific properties; you’ll be able to find deeds and tax documents. In short, use the county clerk’s office as your personal information bank for locating assets, values of buildings and homes, and as a guide to who owns it all.

Working with Public Records

Searching with New Search Technology

The most significant development of the next evolution of the Internet is known as Web 3.0, or the “semantic Web.” Search engines don’t simply retrieve neat rows of numbers or deliver documents in response to queries; they also analyze the raw data to come up with more meaningful answers than simple data retrieval alone can provide. To exploit this new technology, collects info from around the federal government and applies some interesting algorithmic magic to it. The public records it mines aren’t ones about people or businesses specifically but instead are immense collections of scientific and commercial data: state education profiles, for instance, or refinery utilization or demographic data. The site itself encourages private developers to create apps or mash-ups with the data. It launched in 2009, so is still in its infancy. To catch a glimpse of how data will be organized and analyzed in the future, see what is doing today.

The much lauded Wolfram|Alpha is another computational search engine that digests sets of public data and produces interesting results by finding new patterns and insights from the materials it analyzes. The search engine can deliver socioeconomic data, information on people and history, scientific data, and medical information. If you’re new to it, don’t miss the online tutorials that explain just what Wolfram|Alpha is doing.

Freedom of Information Laws

One of the delights of living in a democracy is being able to demand information from the government, thanks to laws guaranteeing citizen access to government records. Since the passage of the Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966, government agencies as disparate as the FBI and the Department of Energy have established offices specifically to handle requests for agency information, as FOIA requires. As the National Security Archive website puts it, FOIA “establishes the public’s right to obtain information from federal government agencies.” It also puts the burden on the government to explain why a record should not be made public.

As mentioned before, lots of public records are readily available. Many government agencies, though, release some of their information only upon request. Generally speaking, this tends not to be routine data, but instead are records that don’t fit into a nice, neat bucket.

The National Security Archive has a thorough guide to FOIA, including background, the legislative history of the act, and how-to guides for filing FOIA requests. Researchers faced with obdurate agencies will learn how to wrest information from the hands of grabby bureaucrats with the detailed guides provided by the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press. In addition to handy explanations to show you the ropes for government research, the site features an automated “FOIA Letter Generator”: Plug in what you want to get and the FOIA Letter Generator will produce a post office-ready letter in minutes.

Also standing by to lead us through the ins and outs of the FOIA process is the Department of Justice. Its site explains the legal underpinnings of what FOIA can and cannot provide to the resourceful researcher. For all the weight that FOIA puts on government agencies to disclose information to the public, certain types of records remain exempt from the law’s requirements. Not only can you not use FOIA to ask for the nuclear launch codes or the combination to the safe at Fort Knox, but there are nine other categories of information that agencies are under no obligation to disclose. The Reporters’ Committee lists the exemptions and expands on how agencies use these exemptions to wriggle out of producing things the agency is obligated to disclose. FOIA specifically protects records that concern the following:

· Classified matters of national defense or foreign policy

· Internal personnel rules and practices

· Information specifically exempted by other statutes

· Trade secrets and commercial or financial information

· Privileged interagency or intra-agency memoranda or letters

· Personal information affecting an individual’s privacy

· Investigatory records compiled for law enforcement purposes

· Records of financial institutions

· Geographical and geophysical information concerning wells

Other exemptions extend to records of law enforcement agencies and are models of common sense. They relieve law enforcement agencies from having to disclose even the existence of records for an ongoing investigation; records that would reveal the identity of confidential informants; those which, if made public, would deprive a person from a fair and impartial trial; ones containing personal information whose disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy; and information that would interfere with enforcement proceedings. In short, any request that would negatively affect police or law enforcement operation is disallowed under the FOIA rule.

But even working within the limitations of the rules, the FOIA legally obligates government officials to the spirit of openness in the conduct of public affairs. The almost natural reaction of most public officials is to be secretive. Prying loose what is, after all, information that belongs to the citizenry is good policy. When you come across a federal agency that obstinately refuses to turn over reports or data or other materials that are not otherwise specifically protected, the Freedom of Information Act puts a powerful tool in your hands to compel the officials to comply.

State FOI Rules

All states have freedom of information laws analogous to the federal law. The intricacies of the state rules, as well as the various ways that state agencies can be queried, are significant. Before you dive in to the challenging world of state FOI requests, brush up on the precise details of what you may or may not obtain from a particular state. Know the correct procedure for requesting the records you want to see because agencies are well within their rights to refuse requests that don’t follow the game plan. The most valuable guide to state agency FOI searching comes from the Reporters Committee. The committee publishes the Federal Open Government Guide and offers an invaluable state-by-state analysis. It evaluates and compares each state’s regulations and policies on a table. Use the pulldown menu on its website to select the FOI policy and then choose the states whose laws on the matter you need to compare. This is very helpful when your search for records crosses state lines and you’re not clear about what the policy is in different jurisdictions. By the way, the committee is a nonprofit organization and provides the guides pro bono. Making a donation in gratitude would not be a bad thing.

Know the correct procedure for requesting the records you want to see because agencies are well within their rights to refuse requests that don’t follow the game plan.

Public records research is like a treasure hunt.

Public records research is like a treasure hunt. By going from one agency to another with your list of needed information in hand, you will secure item after item until you’ve collected all the facts you need. The search can be tedious at times, but the breadth of information available to researchers today and the ease with which it can be gathered takes a lot of the sting out of the process.

For a vivid explanation of how an experienced reporter uses the public record to his best advantage, see New York Times journalist Mike McIntire’s how-I-did-it story about tracking down the parties responsible for an otherwise anonymous political ad. In “The Secret Sponsors,” McIntire illustrates the process of online research, which today constitutes the electronic equivalent of following the famous paper trail beloved by investigative reporters past. By poking around websites, sifting through corporate records, looking up Federal Election Commission filings, and checking other publicly available sources, enterprising reporters dig up facts. Reporters, like lawyers, librarians, and historians, appreciate the value of all the interesting facts that hibernate in file drawers and computer servers in clerks’ offices around the nation.


Tapping into the vast repositories of the public record is one of the basic skills that all researchers should master. It is hard to overstate the value of being able to get at the billions of bits of data held by public agencies at every level of government. To drive home the value of knowing how to use the public record, use these exercises to pull up information about your neighborhood from these ten expansive databases.

I selected these databases to show the breadth of information that anyone can access. They are merely representative samples of federal databases; there are literally thousands of searchable databases published by the government. It would be challenging indeed to catalog all federal databases and describe what you might find lurking inside of them. And who’d read it? You’ve got as your index to agencies already at your fingertips. The following ten questions will require you to query databases large and small and should illustrate what is going on in your own backyard.

Once you can see what information you can pull up quickly, I trust you’ll see my point clearly: Agencies and their record collections have information that Google can’t access. You, however, can scoop it up yourself—and quickly, at that—with curiosity and imagination as your principle research tools.

1. Are the banks in my town financially sound?

First thing to do…locate the banks in your town. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation maintains the “Bank Find” database that will do just that. Type in your zip code to generate a list of local banks. You’ll see that each bank’s name is linked to a report that, in turn, links to a number of fact-rich sites containing additional information, including the CALL/TFR financial information report. This report, from the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council, contains income statements, demographic information, and just about any other piece of factual bank data that you may need to see.

2. Who owns that truck going past my house? Does that trucking company hire safe drivers?

States require trucks to display either their Department of Transportation identification number (U.S. DOT number) or motor carrier number (MC number) on the door of the vehicle. Next time you’re walking down the street or driving in your neighborhood, jot down the DOT number of an area truck. Next, take a look at the SafeStat Online from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Plug in the DOT number to generate a report on the carrier’s safety record.

3. How clean is the air in my town? Are local businesses allowed to handle hazardous waste? Can they emit pollutants into the air? What about toxic releases?

The EPA collects vast amounts of data from businesses throughout out the nation. (Because of the agency’s ardor for gathering data, the EPA is always on the short list of government operations that antiregulation zealots would like to eradicate.) What do they have to report about environmental issues in your town? To get a comprehensive report on the air and water, and other information, merely type your zip code into the search box labeled “MyEnvironment” on the EPA’s home page.

4. What is the crime rate near me? How many robberies? Assaults?

Although the federal data sets don’t get down to the town or zip code reporting levels that most other government databases do, you can still get some detailed reports for your state or, if you live in a city or town with a population over 250,000, of your metropolitan area. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has an extensive collection of searchable databases that illustrates the state of the criminal union. Take your pick—homicides, juvenile delinquents, crime trends—and start your statistical sleuthing. To really localize your results, find your local police precinct and see if it publishes crime data about your neighborhood.

5. How many people over the age of sixty-five live near me? How many people have college degrees? What is the median income in my town?

The Census Bureau cheerily slices and dices census information in dozens of interesting ways. The bureau’s number crunchers tot up the results in a “FactSheet,” a detailed statistical rundown of your zip code that compares a locality’s statistics to national averages. Included in the report are numbers on general characteristics of the population such as age, gender, and household population as well as on ethnicity, education status, military status, and median income.

6. What chemicals are in my kitchen cleaner? What exactly am I washing my clothes with? Are the ingredients in my car wax carcinogenic?

In 1981, Lily Tomlin starred in a movie titled The Incredible Shrinking Woman. The comic plot was perfectly simple: Tomlin plays a conscientious housewife whose household cleansers, perfumes, and other products expose her to a laboratory’s worth of chemicals as she keeps her house spic and span. Those chemicals reduce Tomlin to the size of a Barbie doll. Too bad she didn’t have the Internet back then. She could easily have found out what mysterious compounds were under her kitchen sink or hiding in the garage by perusing the Household Products Database (which I also touted as a great source for company information—a good database serves many masters). The National Library of Medicine publishes the database, giving the public a field guide to the remarkable number of chemicals common in the home and workplace.

Try this. Walk around your house and pick up five things you use to clean, shine, polish, or scrub. Then find out what’s contained in those products and the health effects of ingesting any of the constituent parts. Not only does this database report on the chemical makeup of thousands of products, it reports on the companies who manufacture them. It also can point you to the Material Safety Data Sheet, which is a scientific profile of the chemicals in the most ordinary of products. Did you know that the now-discontinued Febreze Laundry Odor Eliminator contained… hydrochloric acid?

7. Who gives money to my congresswoman? Or my senator?

Although Watergate mystery man “Deep Throat” never actually told the reporters Woodward and Bernstein to “follow the money”—that bit of memorable dialogue was the handiwork of All the President’s Men screenwriter William Goldman—the advice is still valid. Money talks, and when it does, no one cocks an ear more attentively than a politician. Take a look at who is doling out the allowances to your elected federal representatives at the Federal Election Commission’s disclosure databases, where you can search contributions by candidate, individual donor, and committee donor and find a summary of political action committee/candidate contributions.

8. Is my town at risk for a drought or flood? What about an earthquake? Are there valuable minerals beneath my land? Is the water safe to drink?

The job of mapping the entire United States falls to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Its interest in the underground scene also includes monitoring climate change, water tables, and land use. The USGS relies on something called geospatial analysis, which is a way to track how land is used. Use the state-by-state map to look up the geological and geographic facts about your local region.

9. How expensive is it to live where I do?

Keeping tabs on the cost of living is the job of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which publishes a timely variety of databases and tables to track the rise and fall of prices for the stuff that everybody buys. The BLS calculates the well-known Consumer Price Index (CPI), a benchmark for many contracts, agreements, and government programs that depend on cost-of-living adjustments. Use the various charts and graphs from the BLS website to see how your metropolitan area fares on the spectrum of expensive to affordable areas to live.

10. Are the schools in my neighborhood performing as well as they should be?

The breadth and complexity of data on schools available from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics are extraordinary. Dozens of charts, databases, and tables containing statistics and studies will present a clear picture of how schools in different districts are performing. Click through the “Fast Facts, Tables and Figures,” and the “Data Tools” to dig up whatever piece of the educational puzzle you choose to explore.


Administration on Aging

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

Animal and Plant Inspection Service

Bank Find

BRB Publications

Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index

Bureau of Justice Statistics

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Code of Federal Regulations

Department of Justice FOIA Guide

Environmental Protection Agency


Federal Aviation Administration

Federal Election Commission Disclosure Data Search

Federal Register

FOIA guidance

FOIA Letter Generator from the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press

Free Public Records Search Directory

Household Products Database Health and Safety Information on Household Products


Knight Digital Media Center



Library of Congress, Thomas


National Association of Counties

NETR Online

National Center for Education Statistics Fast Facts, Tables and Figures, Data Tools

National Security Archive

Open Government Guide


Safe Stat Online

“The Secret Sponsors”

Sourcebook to Public Record Information

U.S. Geological Survey

U.S. Government Portal

Virtual Gumshoe



Zimmerman’s Research Guide