Q&A with OGIS’s New Director, Alina M. Semo

Alina Semo, Director of the Office of Government Information Services
Alina Semo, Director of the Office of Government Information Services

1)     Please tell us a little about yourself.

I am the product of parents who emigrated to the United States to avoid continued religious, artistic and professional persecution at the hands of the Communist Romanian regime.  In direct and indirect ways, the influences of my father, who made his living in classical music as a professional violinist for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and my mother, an organic research chemist who worked at Johns Hopkins University for 30 years, have led me to where I am today.

My parents, grandmother and I arrived in New York City with only a few suitcases we could carry when I was nearly ten, eventually settling in Baltimore. I attended public junior high school and high school in Baltimore, and after graduation headed to the University of Maryland, College Park [GO TERPS!]. My intent when I began college was to transfer to Duke University to enroll in the pre-med program. Fate intervened, though, when my father, who was then the Associate Concertmaster with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, went on strike with the rest of the musicians’ union. Without a clear idea of how long the strike would last, I opted to save my parents money by staying at the University of Maryland.

During college, I abandoned pre-med in favor of a major in Government and Politics and developed an enduring interest in international human rights and the law.  During this time, I interned with the American Association for the Advancement of Science International Human Rights program, and worked on issues involving scientists world-wide whose human rights were being violated – much in the same way my mother faced persecution for her work while we lived in Romania.

At the urging of a college professor, I decided to attend Georgetown Law School and dabble in international human rights issues when time permitted.  After I graduated, I spent three years in private practice and realized I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do – which is to help people – and to make a difference.

For the last few decades, I have worked as a lawyer in the federal government. In my roles at the Department of Justice (DOJ), Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Archives I have been able to make a difference by not only helping out individual agencies and employees with their legal issues, but also by representing the broader interests of the American public.

2)     What was your first experience with FOIA?

During law school I worked as a law clerk at DOJ’s then Office of Information and Privacy (the office in now called the Office of Information Policy).  Before I began clerking for DOJ, I can honestly say I had not heard much – if anything – about FOIA.  I learned quickly, though, and had the opportunity to collaborate on a section of the DOJ’s FOIA/Privacy Act Guide that explains an agency’s responsibility to create a Vaughn Index during litigation. The last time I checked, the foundation I helped lay for that section is still there today.

3)     You have played an important role in a number of lawsuits that related to access to government records. How do those experiences inform your views of FOIA and the role of OGIS?

I often like to joke about the fact that I had some hand in most of the cases discussed in today’s DOJ FOIA Guide– for better or for worse.  While some lawyers might think of FOIA as a boring part of the law, it has myriad legal – and factual – ramifications. And while I enjoy digging into the facts of a FOIA case and arguing points of law, I am a conciliator at heart.  I have settled many cases – either bilaterally or through mediation.

It’s amazing what can happen when you get parties to sit down across the table from each other, and really talk about what they each want and need.  Yes, sometimes talks break down, parties get entrenched.  But it is possible to reach successful resolutions – where everyone walks away feeling as though they got a partial (if not full) victory.

I also believe there are a number of lawsuits that are needlessly filed; if only communication had been better between the requester and the agency – a complaint could have been avoided.  That’s where OGIS was originally designed to come in; before litigation commences, to see if a reasonable resolution can be reached between and among the parties.

4)     What motivated you to become the federal FOIA Ombudsman?

The founding OGIS Director, Miriam Nisbet, has been a strong presence in my professional career for many years.  Miriam and I have a long history of our professional paths continuing to cross.

Miriam took the congressional mandate of the 2007 Open Government Act and ran with it by establishing and nurturing a highly successful FOIA Ombudsman shop with limited resources.  She devoted countless hours to national and international outreach to get the word out about OGIS and its important role in the federal FOIA scheme.  She encouraged me to apply when the Director position became vacant earlier this year.  I wanted very much to continue the wonderful work that Miriam has done, and to continue to have OGIS play an integral role in the FOIA community.  The 2016 FOIA Improvement Act has given OGIS even more to do, so I will be busier than ever leading a staff who is committed to both FOIA mediation and compliance issues.