William Jefferson

In this Nov. 4, 2008 file photo, former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., is shown in New Orleans.

The federal Freedom of Information Act, which dates to 1966, is intended to give the public information about the Byzantine goings-on inside the United States government.

It is used by journalists and citizens alike to request documents that might shed light on the government all of us are paying for — the way it grants permits to industry, pays for services after a natural disaster, prosecutes its citizens.

But the brokenness of the act was illustrated vividly this month when former Times-Picayune Washington correspondent Bruce Alpert received a response to a FOI request he filed 12 years ago related to the prosecution of former U.S. Rep. Bill Jefferson, D-La.

By the time Alpert received his documents, he had retired and moved from Washington to Montana. But that didn’t stop him from reviewing the documents and writing what they showed about the federal investigation into the disgraced New Orleans area congressman.

Jefferson was convicted in 2009 in a bribery scheme that was mostly memorable for the federal raid on his Washington apartment that uncovered $90,000 in $20 bills stuffed in Boca Burger boxes in his freezer.

Alpert filed his Freedom of Information request that year.

The FBI decided that 293 pages of Jefferson investigation documents were responsive to the request, and it released 83 of them, but some pages had large sections blacked out, redacted.

By the time Alpert received the records, Jefferson had been out of prison for four years, after serving more than five years.

There was not much new, though the records did shed light on an internal debate about whether the feds should raid Jefferson’s congressional office as part of their probe.

FOIA requests often pile up for months or years. Too much classification of documents, paper or digital, prevents their access. Secrecy is a fetish of government. Declassification of documents from government archives moves very slowly, even after decades have passed from the original letters or memos. That is a curse for historians as well as journalists and ordinary citizens.

It is also a barrier to the kind of open economy that America prizes and has generated unparalleled prosperity for its people. While many people focus on the kinds of material unearthed by journalists, the fact is that many more requests are filed by businesses and their lawyers, to understand why a government decision for or against an industry's interest was developed.

Secrecy is an economic issue that is often obscured compared to the "cold cash" documentation of Jefferson's misdeeds.

The Freedom of Information Act is designed to let citizens understand and debate the actions and policies of their government, but that can’t happen if the records are released long after the controversy is over.

“The Freedom of Information Act is broken,” said Anna Diakun, staff attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “Agencies commonly take months or years to respond to even simple requests, and when they do, the records they turn over are often heavily redacted.”

Alpert’s 12-year wait for his records underscores that failure, but at least one federal agency performed up to standards: the Post Office.