Freedom of Information
The Arizona Newspapers Foundation began honoring journalists, legislators and others with the coveted Freedom of Information award as a means to publicize the often difficult efforts to preserve free speech and transparency in government.
David Bodney has filed for the Arizona Daily Star, on a potentially groundbreaking and precedent-setting federal Freedom of Information Act lawsuit challenging a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to redact significant information from a FOIA response sent to the star. The Star had requested a copy of a FWS criminal investigative report on the 2009 capture, recapture and death of Macho B, at the time the only known wild jaguar living in the United States. The Wildlife Service, citing privacy concerns, redacted the names of virtually all persons interviewed in the investigation. The Star is now challenging those redactions in U.S. District Court.
The service’s redactions severely limit public accountability in this case, which caused a massive controversy and triggered intense public criticism of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the state agency that oversaw the capture, recapture and ultimate euthanization of the 15-year-old wild jaguar. Numerous service officials were quoted in those reports questioning the adequacy of the permitting of this capture and the legality of the capture, but without names, it’s impossible for the public to judge the credibility of the expressed opinions. Numerous State game and Fish officials were interviewed about their own actions in the jaguar capture, but again without their names, public accountability for individual actions and behavior is impossible. The Star is arguing in court that public officials don’t have an inherent privacy right when it comes to their handling of public affairs.
WENDY HALLORAN, MARK PHILLIPS, JEFF BLACKBURN, DAVID BODNEY, CHRIS MOESER
Tony Lester, Native American, first time offender, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in May 2010 for hurting two female friends at a party. He had been struggling increasingly with symptoms of mental illness, which went untreated until the crisis sent him to jail instead of a psychiatric hospital. There they found him so severely mentally ill that it took almost a year to restore him sufficiently to sanity to prosecute him as if he’d been sane all along. Then it took another nine months for him to recover from the trial enough to be sentenced.
Mistakenly given razors by ADOC staff, Tony cut his throat, wrists and groin and when the ADOC staff discovered this, they just stood by and watched him die.
Wendy Halloran first requested public records from the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADOC) in the fall of 2010, shortly after Anthony Lester died at the Mazanita Detention Unit in Tucson. As she investigated the incident, Halloran learned that ADOC officers who responded to the call in Lester’s prison cell retrieved a video camera to document the incident. The resulting video depicted the officer’s response to Lester’s suicide attempt.
In June 2011, Halloran first requested that ADOC make a copy of the video available for inspection and copying. However, ADOC denied her request, citing the privacy interests of Lester’s surviving family members, who had filed a wrongful death lawsuit against ADOC alleging that ADOC’s officers stopped by and refused to render first aid to Lester as he bled to death in his cell.
In July 2012, Halloran renewed her public records request for the video. ADOC again denied the request, citing only privacy concerns of Lester’s family. Halloran then contacted the attorney representing Lester’s family, who informed Halloran in early September 2012 that the family did not object to disclosure, provided that two small sections of the video in which Lester was partially clothed were redacted.
Upon learning that the family did not oppose disclosure, Halloran renewed her public records request on Sept. 6, 2012 with ADOC for the video. Despite the family voicing no objections to disclosure, ADOC again denied the request, now inexplicably citing Lester’s privacy interests. Here days after denying the request, ADOC offered to allow Halloran to view the video, but continued to refuse disclosure of a copy of the video – despite no distinction in the Arizona Public Records Law between the rights of inspection and copying. On Sept. 20, 2012 Halloran viewed the video. She renewed her request for a copy of the video on Sept. 24, and narrowed her request, seeking only the first 12 minutes of the video that involved ADOC’s response to Lester’s injuries. ADOC again denied Halloran’s request, citing only Lester’s “personal Privacy” interests – a dubious legal proposition because courts rarely recognize privacy interests in the deceased.
Having exhausted all attempts to convince ADOC to comply with the law and release the video, KPNX and Halloran filed a special Action against ADOC on October 12, 2012. ADOC continued to resist disclosure of the video, first requesting the case to be transferred to a judge who was presiding over the Lester family’s wrongful death lawsuit, and then filing two separate responses to the lawsuit. In its responses, ADOC asserted for the first time that disclosure of the video could pose a threat to prison safety and security, and prejudice the jury pool in the civil case. In addition, the agency continued to cite the privacy interests of Lester and his family to oppose disclosure of the video – even though Lester’s family did not object to disclosure.
On Nov. 21, 2012, Arizona Superior Court Judge David M. Talamante ordered ADOC to produce the video to KPNX and Halloran, finding that ADOC failed to meet its burden to withhold the video under the Arizona Public Records Law. Judge Talamante rejected all of the ADOC’s arguments, and suggested he was inclined to grant KPNX’s request for attorney’s fees. ADOC later agreed to pay more than $26,000 in attorney’s fees to KPNX as a result of its wrongful denial of Halloran’s public records requests.
Halloran’s dogged pursuit of public records in the face of more than two years of stonewalling by ADOC led to the most accurate depiction of what happened to Tony Lester: the video showing exactly how ADOC’s officers responded to his injuries. She sought out informed opinions and analysis from prison experts and mental health experts. Nationally renowned expert, Dr. James Gilligan watched the video and called it shocking and unconscionable. At bottom, Halloran’s persistence and pursuit of public records will continue to shed light on the Arizona prison system and the State’s treatment of prison inmates as an area of critical public concern.
CAROL ANN ALAIMO
Carol Ann has used public records as part of her outstanding watchdog reporting on corruption at Pima Community College.
Carol Ann was the first to report on sexual harassment complaints being leveled against the school chancellor and the school board’s failure to address the problems. Carol Ann’s reporting on the troubled administration started early in 2012 and is ongoing.
Her stories, sprang in large part on public records, sparked numerous citizen complaints to the college’s accrediting agency, which recently ordered an investigation that confirmed the Star’s major findings. Among concerns she has uncovered, often relying on public records, area; inappropriate contracting and hiring procedures, misspending of taxpayer money, and ineptitude at the highest levels of the college. Among the results of her reporting: the chancellor and top administrators resigned, contracts were rebid and a thorough financial audit is in progress. The school has been put on two-year probation by its accrediting agency, the Higher Learning Commission.
Carol Ann Alaimo has covered higher education for the Star for about two years. Prior to that, she covered the military beat and social services. She’s written two investigative projects involving daycare licensing problems and funding problems at the local United Way.
CHRISTIAN PALMER, EVAN WYLOGE
responsible for sparking an Attorney General investigation into the Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC), as well as a politically motivated attempt to oust the panel’s chairwoman.
Palmer and Wyloge uncovered proof that some members of the IRC colluded to hire a particular vendor, then hid evidence of what they had done. The actions all happened behind closed doors, and would not have been known except for the intrepid reporting of Palmer and Wyloge in the Arizona Capitol Times.
STEPHANIE INNES, ROB O’DELL
As the Arizona Daily Star’s religion writer and then healthcare reporter, Stephanie Innes does not request public documents on a daily basis. But she certainly knows a public-records story when she finds one. Last year, Stephanie was working on her annual flu shot reminder when a state health official mentioned in passing that she was concerned the uptick in vaccination exemptions she was seeing would spill over into flu shots. Intrigued, she started looking into the subject and learned that a significant — and growing — number of Arizona parents were choosing not to vaccinate their children. She mentioned this to a public health source who told her the state tracked the percentage of non-immunized students by school.
When she heard that, Innes knew she had the makings of an important story on her hands. She approached the Star’s computer-assisted reporting coordinator, Rob O’Dell, and together they got to work.
Getting the story, and building a school-by-school database, turned out to be an arduous, months-long challenge. The Star first requested vaccination data broken down by schools from the Arizona Department of Health Services on Jan. 4. After several follow-ups and rounds of back and forth, the state turned over immunization rates of kindergarten students in the 2010-2011 school year on Feb. 10. Data from 216 schools with fewer than 20 children enrolled in kindergarten were missing. The state refused to release the data, “to ensure the privacy of children and families.” State officials said the information could be used to identify unvaccinated students on the campuses, which represent 17 percent of Arizona schools.
The Star requested follow-up data on immunization rates of kindergarten students in the 2009-2010 school year, and threatened to sue to obtain data on the missing schools. We argued there’s no obvious way to know who has been vaccinated or not unless parents choose to reveal that information. We also pointed out that the data isn’t from the current school year. The kids in second grade probably are not the same group that was in kindergarten two years ago, making identification of individuals even more unlikely.
The state provided the requested 2009-10 immunization data, but again left out schools with fewer than 20 kindergartners enrolled. The state stood by its privacy position and said it was prepared to defend it in court if the Star sued to obtain the school names.
In April, after more back and forth, the state agreed to provide data from all but one of the 216 schools with the name and address of the schools redacted, grouped by county. State officials contended they still couldn’t release Greenlee County because it only had one school in the group, so it would be easy to identify the unvaccinated students.
The state would also not release any exemption or enrollment data for those 215 schools, when it provided the redacted data on May 1.
Star reporters organized, cleaned and simplified the data, found additional information on schools and queried the data to determine which schools fell below safe vaccination levels. Their research revealed that a third of Arizona schools had kindergarten classes with vaccination rates so low children were left vulnerable to outbreaks of highly infectious diseases. Most public schools did a fairly good job of enforcing state law that kids must be immunized in order to attend school, but charter and private schools had a simply abysmal record – many vaccination rates as low as 50 percent. The rate needed to prevent the spread of infection is 80 percent to 95 percent, depending on the disease. Many charter and private schools had inordinately high numbers of parents who sought exemptions based on the belief that vaccinations can be harmful, but far more school administrators simply failed to enforce state law with no consequence – two state agencies blame each other for the state’s failure to enforce the law.
Both to report the story and to share with the public, the Star created searchable databases for all schools statewide. They can be found at www.azstarnet.com/databases.
The Roundup’s veteran police and court reporter, Alexis Bechman has perfected the use of the Freedom of Information Act. Acting on tips from sources, she repeatedly during the year filed requests for records that allowed her to report on problems inside the police department that led to a string of firings and demotions. Without her work, the public would never have learned the facts behind these cases.
But she didn’t stop there. She also made frequent use of the public records laws to ferret out information useful to her readers that went into stories about restaurant health violations, inaccurate readings on gas pumps and health violations at local hotels.
She made full use of the law to report on issues important to her readers, following the facts where they led. That’s not always easy in a small town where the police all know your car and the advertisers all know the publisher.
Stories Alexis reported that relied on use of public records include:
Officer Fired for Falsifying Document: Alexis picked up rumors an officer had been fired, so she promptly filed a well-worded request for records that revealed a disciplinary action the department had sought to keep quiet. The request resulted in a front-page story.
Rim Gas Stations Cited: After attending a seminar on public records reporting, Alexis quickly put the advice to work. She requested all records concerning accuracy of gas pumps in town and did a complete report, with an explanation of all the problems.
Defrauding Grandma: When an interesting case bubbled up at sentencing on her court beat, Alexis went back and filed the Freedom of Information requests necessary to flesh out the story.
Another One Bites the Dust: Alexis used her contacts to keep track of problems in the police department, relying on tips to alert her to incidents. She then used the Freedom of Information laws to request reports that would detail problems in the department.
Sexting, sex spurs cops firing: The combination of good sources and knowing how to use the Freedom of Information Act resulted in this whole sequence of stories about problems in the Payson Police Department.
Record Request Reveals Third Payson Police Officer Disciplined: Sometimes, an initial records request didn’t prove specific enough. But thanks to Alexis’ persistence and patience, an adroit use of the law consistently revealed the story the town would rather had remained hidden.
Payson Police Officer Resigns to Avoid Disciplinary Action: Alexis patient, low-key, records-based pursuit of difficulties in the police department demonstrated the commitment necessary to get to the root of a story and the invaluable lever offered by the proper use of open records laws.
Restaurants Get Clean Bill of Health: Alexis applied the public records law to other things besides the police beat. In this story, she discovered that she could obtain complete health department inspection records for local restaurants – so she filed a request and wrote a story complete with charts and graphs to lay out the useful information to her readers.
Area Hotels Given Clean Bill of Health: What worked for restaurants also works for hotels. Her expert use of public records laws has now offered readers not only vital information about the operations of the police department, but useful information about gas stations, hotels and restaurants.
In two stories, Cyndy described the sequence of errors by government employees that led to serious wildfires in the Flagstaff region. Her reporting forced government officials to acknowledge faulty preparation and oversight and to develop new training and monitoring procedures to prevent similar fires from reoccurring.
Because neither the 89 Mesa Fire nor the Camp Navajo Fire resulted in prosecutions, there was no courtroom disclosure of internal investigations into their causes. Cyndy filed FOIA requests with the US Forest Service, Arizona Game and Fish and the U.S Army and Arizona National Guard for investigation documents those agencies initially declined to release or to comment upon. In the case of the 89 Mesa Fire, she refiled several of her requests because of technicalities raised by the agencies over jurisdiction, then reminded them repeatedly of their obligations until the report was released nearly one year later.
In the “Double Billing” story, the Guidance Center announced the sudden resignation of a long-time CEO without explanation. Cyndy learned off the record that the board raised questions about billing practices, and Cyndy FOIA’ed the state AHCCCS office handling the Guidance Center records for emails and other reports. They showed $148,000 in double-billing that resulted in the replacement of the billing manager and an overhaul of billing and accounting practices that auditors said reflected “systemic” flaws.
For the Last year, Lindsey Collom has endeavored to wrest public records from Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu and the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office.
Through public records requests, Collom has exposed tremendous staff travel, junkets disguised as official business, vehicle policies that allow top officials to take home cars without paying appropriate taxes, and the purchase of $35,000 in decorative/commemorative badges, among others.
These expenditures of taxpayer money occurred while the Sheriff’s Office faced significant budget shortfalls.
But that’s not all: As part of her ongoing coverage, Collom requested a series of e-mails from the sheriff and members of his command staff. This request led to the discovery that more than 6,000 documents had been deleted from the Sheriff’s Office computers following the request. This situation prompted an inquiry by county officials. While it did not result in charges for the alleged offender, the inquiry revealed widespread records-retention issues within the Sheriff’s Office.
County officials have since implemented policy to beef up recordkeeping requirements for all employees, and administrators created a countywide computer based tracking system to monitor public records requests and help ensure they’re being met in a timely manner.
For her efforts to access public records and inform the public about the sheriff’s operations, Collom has been subject to a relentless barrage of complaints from the Sheriff Office. Collom continues to persevere and provide rich, watchdog stories, based on in a large part, on the pursuit of public records.
Tiny cracks in a flood control dam are revealed 15 months later by a $670,000 investigation to have been caused by faulty construction. The cost to fix it is pegged at $589,000, less than the cost of the probe. It will be paid by the contractors, but the investigation costs will come out of the city’s flood control construction fund.
The city of Flagstaff was the recipient of the flood control grant but initially declined to release any records, contending the Army Corps of Engineers hired the contractor and oversaw the construction. On the advice of Dan Barr of the First Amendment Coalition, the Daily Sun challenged the denial and filed formal public records requests with the city and the Corps, obtaining not only the investigation report but correspondence between the two agencies.
In “Down the Drain,” the city of Flagstaff revealed without explanation that one of two massive concrete digesters at the city’s newly rebuilt Wildcat wastewater treatment plant would be shut down indefinitely. The city cited proprietary design and business considerations in refusing to release the internal city probe of the accident and subsequent insurance report.
Again, on the advice of Dan Barr, Joe appealed the denial and eventually received both reports, which revealed a massive, pressurized explosion that ripped the concrete container apart. The reports showed design and construction flaws caused by funding shortfalls for the original design. Repair costs were set at $650,000, and the city, contractor and insurance company are still wrangling over who will pay what.
The five stories in this entry were the linchpin of a 21-story series, reported over six months, probing an “out of sight, out of mind” topic: Arizona’s management of its prison system. Our coverage was sparked by the reporter’s curiosity as to how well the state had addressed security flaws that allowed three inmates to escape in 2010 from the privately-operated Kingman state prison. The series examined ongoing security flaws, the risks of a proposed expansion of private prisons and the impact of the state’s sentencing practices on prison growth, among other issues of significant public concern.
These stories contributed to Freedom of Information in Arizona from two perspectives: First, as detailed below, reporting these stories required great persistence to pry scores of public records from reluctant, often stonewalling officials in four states, and the extensive parsing of state and federal contracting and campaign-contribution data, among many other sources.
Second, for the sake of transparency and to encourage feedback, the paper posted key public documents online, making the source material available to readers. The paper’s online, print and Twitter coverage alerted readers to five public hearings around the state, promoting standing-room turnouts and strong public interest.
In part as a result of public interest and reaction, in December 2011, the state cancelled its 5,000-bed request for private-prison proposals. This spring, it issued a smaller RFP, for 1,000 beds, that includes higher security and reporting standards than those in current contracts. For the first time since 1994, the Department of Corrections conducted the biennial comparison studies required by state law. Revised state policies now require that any monitor at private prison facilities have prior experience as a deputy warden.
Through public records and other sources, the stories revealed that while the operator of the Kingman prison, Management and Training Corp., publicly touted its cooperation, behind the scenes it dragged its feet in fixing the flaws, yet successfully demanded millions of dollars from the state for beds left empty after corrections officials moved high-risk inmates to other prisons.
The series also revealed that security flaws similar to those at Kingman, from poor security practices to broken alarms and equipment to holes under security fences, continued to be found both at state prisons and at private facilities under contract to the state.
The stories also found the state was pursuing bids for new prison contracts in apparent violation of state regulations, which required that private prisons beds be less expensive than comparable state prison beds. It found that the Department of Corrections had failed ever to perform biannual studies, required by law, comparing private and state-run prisons. And it poked holes in state projections for a growing prison population, noting how inmate numbers were dropping and why that trend seemed likely to continue.
The series examined the generous political contributions and substantial lobbying efforts by the companies, directly and through proxies such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that brings together state lawmakers and corporate lobbyists. It found that some of the finalists had been active in the council as it drafted model bills, adopted in Arizona and many other states that created many new crimes and led to longer sentences for many existing crimes.
And the series examined how the state’s increasingly punitive sentencing practices led Arizona’s prison population to soar over the prior decade even as the crime rate declined, while other states enacted sentencing reforms and saw similar or larger drops in crime even as their prison populations shrank.
For the stories included in this submission, Ortega filed nine sets of public-records requests that produced: facility audits and security reviews; memorandum and communications between wardens and private contractors on the audits and reviews; monthly and quarterly data on significant security incidents and assaults for each of the 15 state and private prisons; monthly data on staffing levels at each facility; copies of five annual facility cost-comparison reports; deficiency notices sent to contractors; recidivism data; copies of the private-prison contracts; correspondence between Corrections and Management and Training Corp. over the Kingman escape, and more. One FOI request revealed the state had paid more than $3 million for empty beds at the Kingman prison.
The department’s information officer initially lied to Ortega in response to early requests, claiming some documents (on staffing levels and assaults by facility, for example) didn’t exist. Citing the state regulations that require the department to compile such data helped puncture those efforts. The department often slow-walked and heavily redacted the documents. It replied to one request by inviting Ortega into a room where the public-information officer had amassed stacks of paperwork (more than 12 linear feet of documents, most of them irrelevant to the request), and demanded that he pay for each and every page. However, Arizona law provides the right to “examine” documents on the premises of the state agency. So Ortega used a portable scanner to copy hundreds of relevant pages. He also made use of a state court ruling (Lake v Phoenix, 2009) to demand that anything stored in electronic form be provided in electronic form. He tracked every request and formally objected when the department didn’t provide information in a timely manner.
Ortega filed FOI requests with Arizona’s state senate for information on “scholarships” provided to lawmakers by ALEC and its corporate members for travel to and accommodations at ALEC conferences). He checked a database of ALEC model legislation compiled and published online by the Center for Media and Democracy, against 20 years of a session-by-session legislative database maintained by the Arizona State Legislature.
On the issue of campaign contributions and lobbying, he cross-indexed data on contributions from a state database (compiled by the Arizona Republic’s legislative reporters through earlier FOI requests) against a database compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. He also checked data from the federal government’s usaspending.gov website against a contracting database maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics, to determine federal contract prison spending. He also obtained a 2005 Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General report on screening of corrections advisors in Iraq (for background on Arizona’s Corrections director). And he reviewed more than 50 individual felony criminal indictments and sentencing reports in connection with the story on Arizona’s sentencing practices. For that story, with the help of two defense attorneys, Ortega also compiled the child-pornography sentencing provisions from all 50 states and the federal court system.
Parker has been a reporter for the Arizona Republic starting as a breaking news intern while studying journalism at ASU. After completing internships in online production, business reporting and community news, he graduated summa cum laude in December 2009.
As the Gilbert town hall reporter, Parker received a tip from a source that Phoenix area real estate experts were still chuckling over the town’s January 2009 purchase of 142.5 acres of undeveloped land owned by dairy farmer Bernard Zinke for $42.7 million.
The reason for their amusement: the per-acre price in town paid was 10 times the purchase price in several private land transactions in the area. At the time, the deal received scant attention: Council gave the transaction little attention when it approved the deal, posting it on its consent agenda for unanimous approval.
With little to go on from that council meeting, Parker began digging into records related to the sale. In his effort to figure out how the town arrived at the sale price, he discovered an astonishing fact: the town never sought a formal appraisal of the land, partly because it didn’t want to get hung up in a protracted eminent domain dispute over land it wanted for future park development.
Digging further, he discovered such urgency appeared unnecessary; the town had no money to develop the land for parks—the reason for the purchase—and won’t have the funds for at least four or five more years. Parker also talked to numerous experts to document how the town’s per-acre cost was so much higher than private transactions at the time, and how far it exceeded valuation of other property in the vicinity.
Parker’s Sept. 9, 2010 story had an immediate and long lasting impact:
- Town council, which included members who were not in office at the time of the deal was approved, ordered an investigation by the town manager, who had replaced the official who sanctioned the deal. That investigation turned up the fact that the town’s total purchase costs exceeded $50 million.
- Town council developed and approved a policy requiring appraisals for all future land purchases.
- Town Council voted to send the January 2009 purchase to the State Attorney General to determine if any crimes had been committed; that investigation is ongoing.
- Parker’s stories also helped shape the dialogue during the spring primary and general election council as three of the incumbents who approved the deal were running for re-election. All three were defeated.
In the meantime, the town manager was directed by council to examine all town purchases of private land larger than an acre between 2010 and 1022 to determine is any other transactions were approved without an appraisal. The town recently determined that six other parcels in that period had been purchased for a total of $16.4 million of taxpayer money without appraisals. In all, the town spent $59.2 million on land without appraisals.
Craig is now a two time FOI awardee for his outstanding work. An Oregon native and a graduate of the University of Oregon, Craig received his bachelor’s degree in journalism. He has worked at six daily newspapers during his 20-year career in journalism.
Before Craig Harris’ eight part series on problems with Arizona’s costly public-pension systems had finished running in November 2010, the Speaker of the House was calling for sweeping changes based on what The Arizona Republic had uncovered.
The speaker wasn’t alone. As Craig’s series reported questionable public pension practices and how the pension system’s annual cost to taxpayers ballooned to nearly $1.4 billion, Arizona’s governor, the incoming Senate president and several pension fund managers vowed to support reform proposal’s in the 2011 legislative session. By late April, the Governor signed a sweeping pension reform bill into law, and one of the key sponsors called the series a “public service” that prompted the legislature to take action.
For this project, Craig filed 67 public-records requests, obtained the amount of pensions paid to retirees in Arizona’s six pension systems and the salaries of hundreds of retirees who still hold government jobs.
The Arizona State Retirement System unsuccessfully attempted to block The Arizona Republic from obtaining some information by asking a judge to withhold a database containing public information about pensions paid to individual retirees within the system. ASRS also sent emails to pensioners warning of the newspaper’s attempts to obtain the information, spreading unnecessary fear among aging retirees that their personal information would be disseminated.
Craig and the newspaper’s legal counsel, however, were able to show that every other public retirement system in Arizona had turned over similar information without question—and e=without any of ASRS’s fear of misuse coming to pass. Finally, the logjam broke, public records were obtained and the data flowed.
Craig’s analysis showed:
- Some elected officials were retiring without ever leaving the classroom, using a loophole to draw a pension while continuing to work the same job.
- How some convicted felons had been removed from office for official wrongdoing, yet were being paid large pensions.
- How a costly public safety retirement program allowed police and firefighters to defer retirement and receive lump-sum payments in return.
- How Phoenix quietly spiked the pay of a former city manager before he retired, allowing him to receive a $246,813 annual pension – more than he made while still on the job.
Until the series appeared, pension reform was not something being discussed or seriously considered by elected officials, charged with being stewards of Arizona taxpayers’ money. That despite widely discussed problems in other states such as California and Illinois, and a wave of sweeping changes to private-sector pensions nationwide.
Call from readers, letters to the Editor and comments on online stories started flooding in from Day One of the series. For example, Jacqueline J. Allen wrote after she read the series opener: “There are many people in this country who have worked for many years with no pension plans and who are now shouldering the tax burden of pension plans for former state employees. When did pension plans become a sacred cow that no one will talk about revamping?”
“I am infuriated when I think of the serious efforts that have been taken to cut the state budget, only to discover that an inordinate amount of tax payer money is going to fund someone’s pension over and above that person’s original salary,” wrote reader Patty Williams. “Your series, ‘Public Pensions: A souring burden,’ clearly present a situation that needs reforming – and the sooner the better.”
On the morning of May 5, 2011 the Pima County Regional Swat team shot and killed a 26 year-old Tucson man while serving a search warrant at his home. His wife and 4 yr-old son were inside at the time, and deputies would not allow medical personnel inside for more than an hour despite desperate 911 calls from his wife. Deputies initially said they killed Jose Guerena because he shot at them Four days later they said they were wrong; Guerena had an automatic rifle, they said, but he did not fire it.
The Pima County Sheriff’s Department is rarely forthcoming with information about officer-involved shootings, but trying to get information on this one was nearly impossible, especially after Arizona Daily Star public safety reporter Fernanda Echavarri told readers that Guerena was a former Marine with no criminal record.
To try to tell the story, Echavarri files several FOI requests, and sued the Pima County Sheriff’s Dept. to obtain the following:
-All reports and documents containing information about the shooting.
-Guerena’s Autopsy report.
-All internal radio communications between SWAT team members before and after the shooting.
-All internal radio communications near the Guerena house.
-911 tapes and radio traffic related to the shooting.
A week went by and Echavarri received none of the documents she had requested. She made another round of requests and on May 13, the 911 tapes were released. Echavarri listened to the hour-long tapes, including a 911 call made by Guerena’s wife that validated the story she had told the reporter days prior. The audio was included in the online story.
At this point there was no indication that Guerena was a dangerous criminal with the need for a SWAT team to break down his door to serve a search warrant, so Echavarri requested all reports of departmental contact to this house and any police reports that included the names of Jose and Vanessa Guerena. She called the department daily to check on her request and finally on May 26, she got a call telling her the department was releasing 500 pages of officer’s statements, evidence lists and witness interviews. It was only because of Echavarri’s persistence that the media got access to these documents. In addition to writing stories based on the documents, Echavarri mapped out the locations of all the other houses raided that morning as part of the same investigation. She drew a family tree, as dozens of people were connected to the case, and many of them were relatives. That document-based reporting led to another investigative piece published May 28.
Based on a tip that Guerena had been found with drug paraphernalia during a traffic stop in another county, Echavarri filed another FOI request, this one with the Dept. of Public Safety. On June 2, a judge ruled that the affidavit Echavarri had originally requested was a public record and it needed to be released. This document provided new details about why Guerena was a target and detailed months of surveillance police had on Guerena’s family.
On June 6, Echavarri received Guerena’s autopsy and wrote a follow-up on that.
With the Sheriff’s office not talking, virtually none of Echavarri’s reporting would have been possible without public records. The story was important to Tucson and received National attention-Echavarri was only able to tell it by requesting the right documents, knowing how to word her requests and calling every day to check on the status of the requests.
While Mark had been an active Journalist for more than 27 years working as a political and investigative reporter at Phoenix-area newspapers he currently is employed at the Goldwater Institute. At the Goldwater Institute, Mark Flatten has continued his work to expose waste, fraud and abuse in government as he rigorously follows the code of Ethics established by the Society of Professional Journalists. Mark is a graduate of ASU and has the distinction of being the only news reporter to be banned from the floor of the House of Representatives in retaliation for his reporting!
Mark’s special investigations include the following:
- Undisciplined Bureaucracy: Civil Service Job Protections make disciplining a problem Government Employee complicated, costly and time consuming
- Discipline delayed: taxpayers foot the bill while government employees languish on Paid leave
- Risk vs. Rewards: Chandler police raise risk to officers as they chase lucrative out of town drug deals
- Schooled in Obstruction: Maricopa Community college staff blocks cost-cutting reforms while pushing tax and tuition hikes.
It should also be noted that Mark was an ANA/APME FOI awardee last year.
Ken Bennett was appointed by Gov. Jan Brewer to replace her as secretary of state, and took the oath of office on Jan. 26, 2009.
The statewide office is the newest chapter in a record of public service that spans 25 years. It’s also the latest distinction for Bennett – an Arizona native and small-business owner.
Bennett began his legislative career in 1998 when he was elected to represent the residents of Legislative District 1. He served four terms in the state Senate – from 1999 to 2007 – and served as Senate president his final four years before being term-limited from office.
Earlier, in 2007, Bennett received the Polly Rosenbaum Award from the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records in recognition of his support for the State Library’s mission to preserve Arizona history and ensure access to state information and records. He served as Republican Floor Leader in 2002, and was chairman of the Senate Education Committee in 2001 and 2002.
Prior to joining the Legislature, Bennett was a member of the Arizona State Board of Education for seven years. He was president of the board in 1996 and 1998. Bennett also served on the Arizona Charter Schools Board for three years, and was a founding member of the Education Leaders Council in Washington, D.C.
Bennett’s career in public service began in 1985 with his election to the Prescott City Council. He completed a four-year term, and was named mayor pro-tempore in 1988.
After leaving the Legislature, Bennett re-entered the private sector to work with companies in the development of alternative energy sources and energy-efficient building technologies. Currently, he is chairman of the board of directors for Prescott-based Global Building Systems, Inc., and Energy Tech America. He also is a member of the board of directors for Cancer Treatment Centers of America (Western Regional Medical Center, in Goodyear). Bennett was CEO of Bennett Oil Company, a family fuel-distribution business, from 1985 to 2006. He continues on its board of directors.
Arizona State Representative Kimberly Yee represents Arizona’s 10th Legislative District, covering the areas of North Phoenix and parts of Glendale. A native of Arizona, Kimberly has a distinguished career in public policy and governmental service. She serves as Vice Chairman of the House Committee on Education, and as a member of the Committees on Health and Human Services, and Employment and Regulatory Affairs. Kimberly was recently honored with the “2011 Representative of the Year” award by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
In 2004, Kimberly was appointed by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as Deputy Cabinet Secretary and was a member of Governor Schwarzenegger’s Cabinet. She served as the Governor’s liaison to the executive branch state agencies and provided policy advisement to the Governor in the areas of K-12, vocational, and higher education, state and consumer services, and labor and workforce development.
During her tenure as a State Representative, Kimberly has been a strong advocate for greater transparency in government and government accountability. During the 2011 Legislative Session, Kimberly was the primary sponsor of two transparency bills that were ultimately passed and signed into law by Governor Brewer: HB2421 requiring greater transparency and accountability of public school districts with respect to making budget and other financial reports available to the public; and, HB2422 requiring cities and towns to make budget information more available to the public on government websites while preserving newspaper publication requirements. While advocating in favor of HB2422, Kimberly openly and successfully opposed efforts by other Senators to amend the bill to remove newspaper publication requirements. Kimberly has consistently expressed that she does not believe public notices should be posted on a government website rather than published in a newspaper of general circulation.
|REP. JONATHAN PATON
Republican, Tucson – District 30
REP. KIRK ADAMS
Republican, Mesa – District 19
The pair sponsored a package of four bills in the 2008 legislative session to provide greater transparency and public access to Child Protective Services proceedings and information previously kept from public scrutiny. They ultimately were successful: HB 2453 (Children; Open Court Proceedings) opens court proceedings previously closed to the public; HB 2454 (CPS Information; Public Records) opens CPS records to the public in cases involving the fatality or near fatality of a child/children, unless prosecutors could establish that the release of such records would cause a material harm to a criminal investigation; HB 2455 (CPS Files; Criminal Investigations) contains identical provisions of HB2454 with respect to the release of CPS records; and, HB 2159 (State Employee; Personnel Records) makes state employees’ disciplinary records, including an employee’s responses, available to the public.Representatives Adams and Paton worked tirelessly with numerous stakeholders throughout the legislative session in the drafting and shepherding of the entire package to final passage in the Legislature and then on to the Governor for her signature.
|SEN. JAKE FLAKE
Republican – District 5
Franklin Lars Flake (1935-2008) is honored for his distinguished service to the State of Arizona and for his help on public access issues. Franklin Lars “Jake” Flake, who passed away June 8, 2008, in Snowflake, not only was a friend of agriculture and rural voters, but also of newspapers. His family is receiving the Freedom of Information Award—Legislative posthumously because of his dedication to public service. Flake, despite the public service and professional accomplishment, knew that Arizona’s future lies in the strength of its families, not the size of its government, according to the legislature’s web site.
He often met with newspaper publishers, and in recent years sat down with the ANA board of directors at a retreat in Pinetop. He was one of the Legislature’s last cowboys, running cattle on his family’s F Bar Cattle Co. his entire life. Flake first served in the Arizona House, beginning in 1997. He was speaker of the House in 2003-04. He had served in the Senate since January 2005 and in early May filed his nomination papers seeking a third term. “He’ll be missed,” said Rep. Bill Konopnicki, a Safford Republican also elected from District 5, who said that Flake was in many ways bigger than life itself.
|RHONDA BODFIELD & ENRIC VOLANTE
Arizona Daily Star
For their investigation “State Fails to Protect Nursing Home Patients” (published in the April 6, 2008 Arizona Daily Star), Rhonda Bodfield and Enric Volante went through and cross-referenced 1,000 hard-copy complaints, 50 lawsuits and all 1,000 written citations involving Pima County nursing homes.But first, the two had to fight repeatedly with state health and federal medicare officials to gain access to these public records. Even when the reporters finally won access to records, some files were out of date. In other cases, the paperwork was missing key, basic details—you couldn’t tell whether anyone died in neglect or abuse cases, for example. Bodfield and Volante had to track dates of death from county medical examiners records, instead, and work backwards to find victims. In the end, the database Bodfield and Volante compiled on the Star’s Web site allowed the public to search far more information than consumers can get from any official regulatory site.
|George Sanchez, Jack Gillum, Andrea Rivera & Jamar Younger
Leslie Newell & Tiffany Kjos
Arizona Daily Star
Three million records. Eight public school districts. Four reporters. A 10-month investigation of social promotion and grade inflation in some of the Tucson area’s largest school districts. And the drive to make amazing bit of journalism happen. The problems which ensued were numerous. Most of the districts said they were unable to comply, either due to student-privacy issues, data storage issues or staffing issues. Some of the excuses were outrageous, including remarks that databases didn’t fall under the public-records law, that they didn’t have the staff to run the reports, that individual students would still be identifiable even with the encryption used by the federal government. They went back and forth with the school districts countless times, sometimes even going to the offices in person to show their data experts how to run basic queries and anonymize data. One district had to hire an outside consultant to run its own computer applications.The results of the investigation speak for themselves. One of three students in the eight districts examined failed at least one core course-English, math, science or social studies-during the 2006-2007 school year, yet 90 percent of students were promoted to the next grade level. At least 94,000 student failed essential classes during the past six years. Moreover, the investigation found dozens of school in which failure rates on state tests were greater than the rate of student who failed corresponding classes in English and math. The gaps indicate grade inflation, experts said, meaning students received higher grades than their performance merited. Not only did this project uncover a major problem that experts say has never been qualified before, but it helped a great number of public officials better understand public records and the laws that govern them. What could be more of an outstanding contribution to FOIA an/or First Amendment issues.
The Arizona Republic
When the chairman of a key Arizona legislative committee announced in the spring of 2007 the committee that hearings into the deaths of three Tucson, Ariz., children that Child Protective Services (CPS) was supposed to be watching would be private, Roberts immediately asked, “Why?” CPS refused to release the usual summaries of the agency’s involvement saying it might jeopardize the criminal cases, and the legislators who reviewed the records couldn’t explain the privacy rule either, stating even they had to sign confidentiality agreements to view the files. Because these CPS documents are routinely open to the public, The Republic – Roberts’ newspaper – and The Arizona Daily Star each filed lawsuits requesting the CPS summaries. The Republic’s lawsuit specifically requested the actual case files under the reasoning that dead children no longer needed confidentiality. Roberts was a vital component in the suit, having researched and written about cases of child abuse and those cases’ correlation to CPS negligence frequently over the previous year. The Republic was successful in winning the lawsuit, and the public had the opportunity to witness a supreme example of why more openness in government-funded agencies like CPS is needed. The paper’s legal victory led the state’s House Government Committee to open its hearings into the deaths. The public was able to hear CPS officials explain how they did nothing wrong when the records clearly showed otherwise. The public also got a glimpse into an agency in need of additional finding and staff but also an agency that keeps its secrets and excuses its mistakes.As a result of the public airing of the state’s role in these tragedies, the state legislature passed a bill this session that gave CPS additional tools it said it needed to protect children and, most importantly, opening all records in child-death cases so that the public will know whether CPS is doing its job.
|East Valley Tribune
General circulation daily newspaper serving the Phoenix area’s east valley
Johnson Utilities is a privately run water utility that serves Johnson Ranch and other growth areas in Pinal County near Queen Creek. The utility has been controversial and the subject of numerous Tribune stories, stemming from consumer complaints to state agencies over water quality and wastewater issues. The city of Florence entered negotiations last year to buy the utility, and funded a $308,000 study of the utility. When Johnson Utilities rejected a city offer of $190 million, reporter Sarah Boggan requested a copy of the taxpayer-funded study. To her surprise and ours, the city notified Johnson Utilities about our request and the utilities company quickly filed suit against the city in an attempt to block the release of the report. We discovered that, as part of the negotiations, the city had agreed to notify Johnson Utilities in the event a public records request was made. That created the unacceptable situation in which neither the plaintiff nor the defendant in a public records case had a compelling interest in making the report public. Guess how that case would have ended up had the Tribune not hired a law firm to represent the newspaper and the public.
In the end the Tribune prevailed and won a court order on May 28 to release the study, with only proprietary information redacted. As the result of its efforts, the newspaper was able to report that the utility charges its customers 30 percent more for water and sewer services than the state average and struggles to meet state standards for potentially poisonous compounds.
East Valley Tribune
It is not often someone can bring about a change within a state governmental body, but Mike Sakal’s extensive public records requests and research did, prompting the Arizona Board of Education to organize a public database of educators who lost their teaching certifications in the last decade. After two local high school teachers were charged with sexual offenses against students in spring 2007, reporter Mike Sakal started investigating how many local teachers lost their certification because of sexual misconduct in the past decade. The months-long investigation, which involved examining records from the Arizona Board of Education, Arizona Department of Corrections, local school districts and city and county courts, resulted in an in-depth print and online package. In addition to three stories, the online package included a database of the 38 local teachers who lost their licenses for misconduct since 1998 plus details of other ongoing investigations, four video interviews, online graphics and a records request generator for readers use. Additionally, the Arizona Board of Education ultimately organized a database of educators who lost their licenses for sexual misconduct as a result of the Tribune’s records requests.
Mohave Valley Daily News
Neil Young was instrumental in a victorious lawsuit vs. the City of Bullhead City to gain access to public records the city had refused to release. The case started in Jan. 2007 as an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment made against three male Bullhead City employee’s by two female employees. The three male employees were placed on leave. The investigation quickly widened to include possible misuse of city computers (including the running of a private business on city computers) and an additional six employee were placed on leave. The city also investigated allegations of a city employee’s swingers/wife swapping ring that was possible trying to recruit co-workers.Neil Young immediately made contact with several employees placed on leave and was informed they were ordered not to talk with the media. Contacts made with city officials, including the city manager and city attorney, elicited the same response. It was, they said “a personnel matter.” Young filed a public records request to the city, which the county attorney refused on the ground of being too broad and unspecific. On Feb. 21, Young and the Daily News narrows scope of records request. The city continued to refuse the release of records. During the ensuing weeks, the city continued to stonewall at every conceivable moment, citing personnel issues and the ongoing investigation. On July 3, the city investigation wrapped up and the investigation summary was released to the Daily News in heavily redacted form. An unredacted form was then requested – only to be refused by the city.
On Aug. 15, News West Publishing, parent company to the Mohave Valley Daily News, sued Bullhead City for non-release of public records. Several court hearing, filings, etc., continue through the holiday season and into 2008. Reporter Neil Young was heavily involved in each hearing. On Feb 14, 2008, Mohave County Superior Court ruled that Bullhead City had to release several thousand documents in unredacted form to the Daily News – more than a year after the newspaper’s original public records request. One by one, the judge ruling shot down the city’s arguments as to why it should not release the documents.
Young was instrumental in pushing this case, making the case to newspaper management to expend the time and money to pursue a lawsuit, providing information to the newspaper’s attorney and keeping pressure on the city to release information. This case was significant for the Mohave Valley Daily News in that many in the community never thought the newspaper push this hard for information and others thought they would give up as the case dragged on. That they maintained the fight to review the public records – and were victorious – won over many who had thought the newspaper would never put up a fight. It also sent a clear message to government agencies throughout our circulation area that public records are just that: public.
West Valley View
West Valley View publisher Elliott Freireich, at great personal and financial risk, stood up to “America’s Toughest Sheriff” Joe Arpaio and demanded that the sheriff obey Arizona’s Public Records Law. The sheriff refused. The View sued and won in Superior Court. Arpaio appealed. The View won again. Incredibly, Arpaio argued that press releases are not public records and he didn’t have to provide them to the View.
Elliott Freireich, 57, launched the West Valley View in 1986 as a community weekly. Today the View is a semi-weekly and is delivered to more than 80,000 households in the cities of Tolleson, Avondale, Goodyear, Buckeye and Litchfield Park.
CARI GERCHICK & EMILY POLAND
Arizona Supreme Court
Gerchick & Poland are nominated for their willingness to speak both on the record and on background to help reporters learn intricate courtroom rules, case histories and precedent. They assisted in pouring over hundreds of legal documents, in addition to their regular workload, so that stories can get done before the deadline. They regularly volunteer significant information about a case and remain professional throughout.
|REP. JONATHAN PATON
Republican, Tucson – District 30
The 2007 recipient of the Arizona Freedom of Information award for elected officials is Jonathan Paton, a member of the Arizona House of Representatives from District 30 in Tucson. He is a Republican. Since he first took his seat in the House, Rep. Paton has been interested in the public’s access to government records and meetings at all levels. He understands that the Arizona Newspapers Association seeks to keep government open for all Arizonans, because it isn’t a media issue. If a member of the public can’t see government files, then neither can a journalist from the media – they have the same status and rights. Iraq service by Rep. Paton took up most of his time in the 2007 legislative session but he returned home – and to his seat in the legislature – in time to sponsor a bill honoring victims of the Virginia Tech student massacre.
|CAROL ANN ALAIMO
Arizona Daily Star
Alaimo scrutinized documents regarding 11 Tucson military recruiters that were under FBI investigation for transporting cocaine.
|GEORGE B. SANCHEZ
Arizona Daily Star
Sanchez used the documents he obtained to expose missing money, bid-rigging and favoritism in the Tucson’s largest school district.
Arizona Daily Star
McCombs requested documents at length from the Cochise County Attorney’s office pertaining to a Border Patrol shooting. After three months of denials, he enlisted the aid of the First Amendment Coalition and subsequently received the information, which concluded that the Border Patrol agent was not legally justified in killing the migrant.
The Arizona Republic
Using information he obtained and creating a detailed database, Anglen’s public records pursuit documented financial abuse at Maricopa Community Colleges, which led directly to the firing of two college presidents and a key college administrator and a massive overhaul of college financial controls.
(R-District 9, Arizona)
Sen. Burns agreed to sponsor a bill in the 2006 session that the association had been working on for more than five years – the Public Access Counselor. Because Burns sponsored the original bill that created the Arizona office of Ombudsman, Burns suggested the public access office be termed the Public Access Ombudsman and placed under state Ombudsman Pat Shannahan.
Arizona Daily Star
Daniel Scarpinato was one of the best education reporters the Star has had in years, largely due to his use of public records/FOIA requests. He was never satisfied with official answers to questions and always wanted to analyze reports and information to find the truth of the matter. He learned how to see between the lines on school board agendas and spot trends that he backed up with lots of numbers gained from records requests. One of the best stories he produced – and, perhaps, one of the best stories in the Star – during your timeframe was an analysis of how often area districts had moved to fire teachers during the past five years. The results showed there are major problems with process. For example, one local district let a teacher remain in the classroom for six years, even though he was accused repeatedly during that timeframe of fondling and propositioning students, and even showing one a tattoo on his buttock. Another teacher had been repeatedly accused of injuring students yet also was allowed to remain in the classroom. This story followed several others that looked at individual teachers and the problems they were having, as also documented in numerous records. Daniel also used public records to get numbers that showed serious problems with how the city’s largest district was handling its desegregation order. His story showed that nearly 600 minority students were on waiting lists for schools that had nearly 1,000 open seats.Daniel Scarpinato has covered politics for the Arizona Daily Star since May. He joined the Star 2004 and covered education before being promoted. He is a native Tucsonan, a graduate of the University of Arizona and vice president of the Southern Arizona Society of Professional Journalists.
Arizona Daily Star
Hardly a day passes when Becky Pallack isn’t filing a public records or FOIA request. As our public safety reporter, she was constantly requesting police reports, reviewing court records and requesting other data that she could analyze to see what crime trends were taking root in Tucson. But she also constantly pushed herself to find more records to check, which resulted in many good stories from agencies such as the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board. It also led to her taking over our monitoring of workplace safety issues via the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health. The results of all this hard work were outstanding. One of the best records-driven stories she wrote within your timeframe was an analysis of how work sites in Southern Arizona are becoming more dangerous. This story was tremendously important because it was something that hadn’t been reported at all, but certainly was pertinent to the safety of many members of the community. Another important story she reported was the result of extensive records requests from police and courts in which she detailed the violent workings of a local meth ring. She also explained to the community how charges had been dismissed in a high-profile murder case (authorities wouldn’t explain it to her, so she tracked it down with records); how a suspect in a fatal hit-and-run had been cited just moments beforehand and how a fired officer was allowed to keep his certification.
|CAROL ANN ALAIMO
Arizona Daily Star
As the military reporter, Alaimo often deals with reluctant sources that don’t want to tell her the truth. She had several great stories this year that relied on public records, stories the public may never have known about without her diligent work.Chief among these reports was an analysis of what high schools military recruiters were targeting. There had been growing sentiment around the city (and the country, for that matter) that recruiters were targeting poor schools and those with high minority populations. So Carol Ann plastered the school districts with requests for records on what recruiters they were allowing on campus and how often they visited. The resulting analysis showed that recruiters weren’t actually targeting poor and minority-heavy schools, but rather those with strong JROTC programs and those closest to military installations, where the children of current military members were attending school.
Another example is a story she wrote about an accident at an air show practice. Turns out, a former Navy Top Gun with decades of flying experience had forgotten to put down his landing gear. She also reported on the still-rising incidents of domestic violence in the military; analyzed how many people were taking advantage of a raise in maximum recruiting age; and obtained federal reports that showed why our area installations fared as they did during the BRAC process the previous year. She never stops seeking answers.
Arizona Daily Star
Stephanie Innes is a great reporter who’s always trying to find ways to improve. To that end, she challenged herself this year to incorporate more public records/FOIA reporting in her beat. While she’s always been proficient with records, from her time as a police reporter to her time covering the bankruptcy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson, she wanted to push herself to do as well while covering religion. The result has been a fabulous series called Faith & Growth. The series began with a story in which Stephanie obtained property records from seven different municipalities and analyzed what religions were building and where they were doing it. The results showed that religious groups have spent at least $32 million on construction during the past six years and most of the building was among conservative Christian churches in suburban areas. The second story in the series examined how many local churches are functioning without their own buildings, mostly through meetings at public schools, community centers, etc.These stories have been popular with readers, not surprising given that readership surveys consistently show that people want to learn things they don’t know about their community. Stephanie also broke the first story about the “brooming” incidents at a Prescott camp that involved the state Senate president’s son, and the plea bargain that followed, and she used an abundance of court records to figure out why the city’s long-running Passion play was ending. On top of her outstanding coverage of the diocese bankruptcy, Stephanie really did a great job this year in using public records/FOIA reports in her beat.
The Standard (Kingman)
One particular incident that surfaced earlier this year demonstrates Hawkins’ contribution to the media utilizing the First Amendment and the Freedom of information Aty. A series of ‘resign or be fired’ scenarios were happening left and right within the city, all corresponding with the introductory term of a new city manager. Hawkins made repeated attempts to acquire information regarding the departures of two key city employees, and all attempts were either ignored or downright refused. Hawkins submitted Freedom of Information Act requests, and ultimately, was able to report the facts to the public.Hawkins has upheld the standard of the people’s right to know and that he will continue to do so, making him an outstanding contributor to Freedom of Information and First Amendment issues, as well as an outstanding journalist.
The Arizona Republic
In this case, reporters Ginger D. Richardson and Monica Alonzo-Dunsmoor did what all reporters should strive to do everyday-serve as watchdog for the public. Richardson, who covers downtown Phoenix redevelopment and Sky Harbor International Airport, got a tip that a Phoenix Aviation Department employee was taking extravagant vacations on the city dime. She and Ms. Dunsmoor ended up uncovering more wrongdoing than the tipster ever expected.
Getting information wasn’t easy, however. The City of Phoenix refused to give the reporter an electronic database of employees’ travel expenses. After The Republic enlisted the help of an Attorney, the city turned over a box containing more than 1,800 records.
None of the travel reimbursement forms were in order-either alphabetically, by department, or by dollar amount. Richardson had to go through each document by hand, ferreting out duplicates, and other extraneous paperwork. To keep track of it all, she and Dunsmoor, our city hall reporter, created a database of travel spending, and then went back and began requesting individual trip reports.
Again, the city fought the release of the documents, saying it would take weeks to cull the information from archives. When the new batch of records was finally provided, they too were a jumbled mess. Reporters had to cull through thousands more pages, and repeatedly go back to the city to request missing or supplemental information.
Amazingly, all of this was done in a seven-week time period. The series has prompted immediate, and comprehensive, changes to the way the city operates, and will save a countless amount of taxpayer money. Phoenix has rewritten its travel policies and has asked blatant offenders to reimburse the city for their inappropriate charges.
The Arizona Republic
In late June 2005, five members of a family in Yuma were found shot to death in their home. Reporter Dennis Wagner was assigned to write a reconstruction of the homicides. To do this, he filed a public records request asking the city police department to turn over its investigative file on the incident.Yuma police refused to release the records, saying the information was part of an ongoing homicide investigation. After obtaining information about the victims, Wagner reviewed state court records and found possible leads to pursue in Yuma Municipal Court.
On July 7 he filed a public records request with the court, asking for any information it had in connection with the case. The judge provided some requested documents, but ruled the The Republic was not entitled to the complete report-even though state law stipulated they were public records. Of more concern, though, was the judge’s shredding of the investigative documents, a clear violation of the state’s public records law and a Class 4 felony.
The Republic filed an appeal of the judge’s actions with the state Superior Court, which had administrative jurisdiction over the city court. In an attempt to mediate the dispute, the Yuma city attorney offered The Republic a complete set of records in return for withdrawing our protest. The newspaper refused the offer and took its case to Superior Court. The Republic’s editors thought the municipal judge to be in the clear violation of the law and wanted him top be reprimanded for his actions. They also wanted the records that the state law said the newspaper-and the public- was entitled to.
On October 4, The Republic was granted both its requests. The Yuma Municipal Court judge was given a reprimand for shredding the documents and the newspaper was given the complete investigative file on the murders.
The Arizona Republic
Robbie Sherwood’s stories on the Arizona Board of Homeopathic Medical Examiners started with a tip from a homeopathic physician and the longtime watchdog of the board who provided details of how board members had repeatedly granted licenses to felons and other doctors with severe disciplinary problems in other states. Allegations included the death of at least one patient and threats to the life or health of many others.The board, which had not undergone a state performance audit in 20 years, was about to go before the state Legislature for its 10-year sunset review, to determine whether it could continue to exist. To verify of dismiss the claims, Sherwood first requested five years worth of the board’s official meeting minutes. Using the records as a springboard, he systematically worked to get the real story behind each of the claims and to look into other cases of interest that had caught his eye during the review.
After completing three weeks of research, he pieced together short vignettes on each of the doctors, outlining allegations and histories that had been verified through hundreds of pages of public records.
Sherwood then contacted each doctor who would be mentioned in the story, many of whom were initially reluctant to talk. He eventually persuaded all but two of the doctors to comment. The front-page story ran in the Republic on Oct. 9 included a comprehensive chart detailing what the records revealed about each of the doctors, the role the board played in licensing them and the doctors responses.
Several weeks after the story was published, a joint state House and Senate Health Committee overwhelmingly recommended a full audit of the Board. The committee also recommended that the board be renewed only for two years – rather than the full 10 – while the audit is being completed. The full legislature will consider the recommendation in early 2007.
The Arizona Republic
In late October 2005, a Phoenix fire truck was involved in a fatal accident. The Republic received reports that the engineer was driving close to 60 mph in a lane of oncoming traffic – a violation of department policy. Judi Villa, the reporter assigned to cover the Phoenix Fire Department, had covered past fire truck accidents and started asking questions about driver training. She found out it was virtually non-existent.Villa also found out that driver training was something the firefighters union had been requesting for years- unsuccessfully. With this background, Villa requested the fire departments accident logs. Villa was able to conclude from an analysis of fire department records that two-thirds of firefighter-involved accidents were preventable. The public records requests she filed were crucial because they allowed her to attach a dollar amount to those accidents: Nearly $4 million paid in auto liability claims since 2002 and another $730,000 spent to repair damaged vehicles.
About a month after the story ran, Phoenix fire officials announced they were requesting $480,000 in additional funding for the next fiscal year for driver training. A committee also began meeting to develop a comprehensive driver training program that would include annual refresher courses, a two-year recertification process for engineers, and remedial training for drivers deemed at fault in accidents.
This is the third award for the Senator from the Phoenix area. The association’s board of directors and legislative committee said that the work that Sen. Martin continues to do to open records, and keep them open, is one of the most important jobs for a state legislator.This past legislative session (2005) Sen. Martin introduced two pieces of legislation concerning open records.
The first, Senate Bill 1498 outlawed the growing practice of a government entity suing a member of the public simply because that person requested public records. “That is a method of stalling or refusing to hand over public information,” said John Fearing, executive director of the Arizona Newspapers Association. The government entities claimed they need a judge to make a decision on whether the information is public as defined by the state’s Public Records Act. This forced a citizens to hire an attorney and become a defendant, Fearing said. But, thanks to Sen. Martin, we no longer have to deal with that.
Martin also introduced Senate Bill 1499, the Public Access Counselor. That bill funds a state employee to advise the public and government on whether a request is legal. Although the Public Access Counselor bill was adopted by Senate, and included study of SB 1498, it failed in the House.
Pima County Administrator
Chuck Huckelberry has been the Pima County Administrator since 1993.Chris Limberis with Tucson Weekly nominated the government employee, writing, “I don’t think his hallmark Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, together with $174 million in open space bonds, would have gained such support had he (Huckelberry) and his crew not made open government a requirement.”
He continued, “Huckelberry should be recognized for running the most open government in memory here. He opens it all, warts and all. Rarely must a reporter file a public records request under ARS 39-121.-121.03. He and his staff are responsive and thorough and they don’t play games with the records. You want, you ask, you get. He has set a proper tone for the wing of the diffuse county government under his control. The many elected officials running other county departments should, but don’t, take his lead. And finally, he stands in stark contrast to the historic practices of secrecy across the plaza at City Hall, though that will improve under Mike Hein.”
East Valley Tribune
Mark Scarp, a columnist for The Tribune in the East Valley, is the president of the Arizona First Amendment Coalition, a group that assists journalists across the state when they have records and meeting access issues.Scarp earned the award because of his volunteer work for the coalition by serving as president for the past five years. During that time he has worked on various issues including ironing out problems reporters have in covering forest fires.
The Associated Press
Arizona Daily Star
Jacques Billeaud of the Associated Press and Enric Volante of the Arizona Daily Star were the lead reporters on a statewide access audit of public records. Under the auspices of the Arizona Associated Press Managing Editors group, journalists from across the state visited law enforcement agencies, schools, and city or county managers to see how well our government follows the Arizona’s Public Records Law.Jacques and Enric helped analyze the data and turn it into a series of stories that revealed wide differences in the way Arizonans are treated when they ask government employees for public records.
Jacques Billeaud covers immigration and politics for The Associated Press’ bureau in Phoenix. He has worked as a reporter for 12 years. Before joining the A.P. in 2000, he reported for newspapers in Oklahoma, Louisiana and Tennessee.
Enric Volante is a senior reporter and computer assisted reporting specialist. He’s been with the Star since 1981.
|CAROL ANN ALAIMO
Arizona Daily Star
Carol Ann Alaimo, military reporter for the Arizona Daily Star, used the federal FOI Act to follow-up on an incident reported worldwide when it happened. In 2003 the military said it raided a location in Afghanistan based on intelligence reports that a high-profile terrorist was in the area. The bodies of nine children were found at the site. The military apologized for the incident.Carol Ann filed an FOI request for the investigative report. The military withheld the report but in August 2004 sent a letter saying its investigation found no misconduct. In fact, the three-paragraph letter said, a videotape of the attack found no evidence that children were at the scene while the air raid was taking place. Carol Ann was the first to report these findings.
Alaimo has more than 20 years’ experience at newspapers in the U.S. and Canada.
Arizona Daily Star
On every beat Becky Pallack has covered, she has made Freedom of Information Act requests a part of her daily routine. She was honored last year for this award for her work uncovering workplace safety issues when she covered workplace issued for the Business Section of the Arizona Daily Star.Perhaps her proudest use of public records in the past year was, “Abused girl’s home prison: a bleak life,” published Feb. 11, 2005. This narrative was pieced together mostly from police reports. It shows what a great job a reporter can do even with just reports as long as he or she asks for the right ones and uses the right details.
The top story: “As she sat alone, trapped in a small, dark room, the 14-year-old girl tried to remember her multiplication tables. She hadn’t been to school for nearly three years. Her father and his live-in girlfriend kept her locked in the room, a pink blanket covering the lone window.”
Pallack also uses the Freedom of Information act routinely to request Internal Affairs reports. That has led to such stories in the past year as “Detective demoted as case is dropped”, (March 12, 2005), “Dispatcher accused Hunt of harassment” (Jan. 5, 2005), and “Woman claims TPD officers pressured her to have sex” (March 3, 2005).
Also, Becky and Star reporter Kim Smith nailed a story about Pima County dismissing 539 drug cases because police and prosecutors forgot about them and let them languish too long. They got this story by arguing, and not giving up, that letters from the County Attorney’s office to the Police Department are public records.
Becky Pallack has covered real estate and workplace issues for the Arizona Daily Star since October 2003. Before that she spent several months reporting for Inside Tucson Business preceded by a year covering education for the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff.
Journalist WinnerIn the Fall of 2004, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS) hit more than 1 million enrollees for the first time. As the state legislature scrambled to find $75 million to cover the program’s growth spike, The Arizona Republic set out to explain how the Medicaid program had grown so rapidly in the three years since voters had expanded eligibility.
As part of this effort, Republic reporter Amanda J. Crawford filed a public information request to the Department of Economic Security (DES), which processes eligibility for AHCCCS, requesting data on the employers of the working adults enrolled in the program. DES told the newspaper that the information was not public. The Republic continued pursuing the data, using the specific application form that is filled out by applicants as the basis for another public records request.
DES maintained that a federal rule prohibited the release of the information. Then they added an additional caveat: Even if the rule did not apply, getting at the information would require the work of a computer programmer and would cost the Republic $4,000. Similar requests from other news outlets and state legislators also were denied at this time.
That winter, Democratic Sen. Richard Miranda introduced legislation to counter the agency’s refusal to release the records. The bill would have made the AHCCCS employer data public. It was struck down in committee. Meanwhile, in other states, lists of employers of those on Medicaid were made public, leading some legislative efforts to address the burgeoning rolls of public health programs. Wal-Mart, Arizona’s largest employer, led the list in most states, leading to campaigns targeted at the retail giant.
The Republic continued its efforts with DES and the state Attorney General’s Office and received denial after denial. Eventually DES printed hundreds of pages of information for The Republic, even though the newspaper constantly asked for electronic records. Pressing harder, the Republic received electronic records, and learned the data about employers was spelled just as the applicants had written them. In two days of marathon work, Crawford and Republic data specialists Ryan Konig and Matt Dempsey cleaned up the data. Published on July 30, the story gave Arizona citizens information about employers. It is a $6 billion program and Wal-Mart had 10 percent of its workers on the list, alone costing taxpayers an estimated $15 million a year. The state of Arizona also had employees on the list, a blow to the government that revealed the low wages of some of its workers.
Several legislators have indicated they will use the information to draft legislation in 2006. Winning the documents not only was a victory for The Republic, but also for the public because it gave them insight and perspective on a program rapidly consuming state taxpayer resources.
Sen. Martin, a previous FOI recipient, received another FOI award because he stood up for the people of Arizona in the state legislature by being attuned to actions that would have turned the light out on public information. When schools thought it was best to stop publishing their annual financial reports, and their budgets in their local newspapers, Sen. Martin became concerned as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Speaker of the House
Speaker of the House Jake Flake received his award for his keen understanding of the role newspapers play in their communities, and how businesses remain successful. In the 2004 session of the Arizona Legislature, Speaker Flake assisted newspapers by removing an amendment that would have halted newspaper publication of school finance reports and budget; information that should be accessible to the public.The fourth of eight children, Jake learned the value of teamwork earlier in life than most. His childhood chores on the family ranch taught him that true success comes through hard work.
Gov. Janet Napolitano received an FOI award for her veto letter during the long 2004 session of the Arizona Legislature when there were debates in the House and in the Senate about bills focused on future gasoline fuel crisis. Her letter for the house bill said, “As we learned last summer after the rupture of the Kinder-Morgan petroleum pipeline, the flow of information about fuel supplies during a crisis is important for informing the public about the expected duration and implications of the crisis…”
Attorney and Tax Accountant
Kamman provides tax advice and prepares tax returns for several hundred clients. But one of his passions is scanning campaign finance reports filed with the Secretary of State’s Office by candidates for state offices.He is a supporter of the Clean Elections public campaign funding system, saying that the best way to preserve the system is to keep it honest. Kamman filed numerous complaints against candidates during the 2002 election and several of these turned into enforcement actions by the Citizens Clean Elections Commission.
East Valley Tribune
James, a reporter for the Tribune in the East Valley, wrote a story with a headline, “Veil over school pay.” In the spring of 2004, he used freedom of information requests to tests charter schools’ compliance with the Arizona Public Records act. In another story, “School crime reports paint a blurry picture”, James challenged the accuracy of school crime reports at many East Valley schools. And for “Reading, writing and lawsuits”, James used multiple FOI requests and court records for a third investigation in March on the amount of money East Valley school districts were spending on attorney fees and court costs.
East Valley Tribune
Giblin, a reporter at the Tribune in the East Valley, wrote a story with the headline, “E. Valley pays, W. Valley plays.” For the Aug. 10 article, he used public documents to illustrate huge funding disparities from a state agency set up to build public sports facilities, funded by public taxes. In an Oct. 26, story, ‘Police official’s past open rift in force’, Giblin used a variety of records to document internal police concerns about the Scottsdale Police Department’s top civilian official, administrative services director Helen Gandara Zavala.
The Navajo Times Publishing Co. Inc. began official operation as a for-profit corporation on Jan. 1, 2004. Prior to that, since 1960, the Navajo Times was owned and operated as a division of the Navajo Nation Government. During its tenure as a Navajo tribal department, the Navajo Times was constantly under political pressure from Navajo leaders and the tribal council to present news that was slanted toward the tribal government and would put tribal leaders and officials in a positive spotlight.
White Mountain Independent
Corrigan used open records/meeting reporting, editorials effectively. He has continued to regularly generate opinion pieces discussing the laws that require government boards and commissions to conduct their business openly. These opinions have resulted in more openness and educated citizens on Open Records and Open Meeting law in Arizona.
Arizona Daily Star
Pallack, a reporter with the Arizona Daily Star, has less than two years experience in the field. But she is proving to be a champion of the First Amendment and has built for herself a passion and base of knowledge on the issue, which is rare for someone so green.
East Valley Tribune
Cirianni, reporter at the Tribune in the East Valley, frequently uses Freedom of Information requests and continually pursues her right to review public records so she can write about pertinent subjects of public interest.
East Valley Tribune
Ryan, a reporter at the Tribune in the East Valley, last year worked on a project involving police pursuits. It would not have been possible without the extensive use of public records requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Ryan queried seven major law enforcement agencies in Maricopa County for hundreds of police records that became the lifeblood of the project. The reports revealed 25 pursuit-related deaths since 1989 and more than 80 injuries over the past five years.
|CAROL ANN ALAIMO
Arizona Daily Star
Alaimo, a military reporter at the Arizona Daily Star, day after day faces unanswered phone calls, slamming doors and various versions on ‘no comment.’ Oftentimes, even for the simplest of requests, she is forced to resort to filing Freedom of Information Act requests.
|ENRIC “RIC” VOLANTE
Arizona Daily Star
Volante, a reporter at the Arizona Daily Star, is a computer-assisted reporter whose job revolves almost entirely around public records. Almost every story he writes is based on public documents he diligently seeks simply by asking, by building relationships with public officials or by filing Freedom of Information Act requests. For a story with the headline, ‘Leaking fuel tanks foul soil, water under our feet,’ Volante used state records to produce an investigative story about how leaking fuel tanks foul the soil and water under our feet. When he downloaded the leaking underground storage tank data from the state Dept. of Environmental Quality Web site, he found it was seriously incomplete and that the public was not getting accurate information.
In four separate stories, Crowley, a reporter at the Payson Roundup, recognized injustices were about to occur. Although she is a fairly new reporter, Crowley led the charge to ensure that those injustices did not happen. Through her efforts, a gag order was prevented and the public’s right to know was protected.
The Arizona Republic staff aggressively used the Freedom of Information Act when Reporting on Prison Standoff. The staff dissected the nation’s longest prison standoff and the circumstances in the state corrections department that allowed it to happen.The Republic team, led by Pat Flannery, a senior reporter covering pubic money issues, reported on a detailed examination of lawsuits against governments and money paid to settle. The team of eight local government reporters and the county beat reporter examined lawsuits against city, state and county governments over three years. Flannery and some of the reporters waged a number of Freedom of Information battles for data and other information needed. The other reporters were: Christina Leonard, Alia Rau, Adam Klawonn, Edythe Jensen, Monica Dunsmoor, Marty Sauerzopf, Chuck Kelly, David Madrid, Stephanie Paterik and Leslie Wright.
White Mountain Independent
Terry was instrumental in getting the White Mountain Lake Fire District to realize they were violating the open meeting law. His coverage resulted in the fire district board admitting guilt to 19 violations of the law. Terry also wrote at least 5 editorials this past year asking/insisting on openness by public bodies.Terry is perhaps at his best when he is insisting that public business should not be done behind closed doors. His editorial on Tuesday Nov. 26, 2002 ends with the words: ‘Don’t take us wrong here, most of our local governing boards do their best to conduct business openly and we appreciate it. But for those few who continue to flaunt the law we will continue to point it out. Openness in the conduct of government is essential to a free society.’ This is Terry’s second FOI award. Terry was nominated by his Publisher, Greg Tock.
|DR. RICHARD A. PARKER
Northern Arizona University ~ School of Communication
Richard Parker is a leading and nationally recognized First Amendment scholar who has championed Freedom of Expression issues throughout his career as a university professor. Dr. Parker has just published a book entitled “Free Speech on Trial: Communication Perspectives on landmark Supreme Court Decisions.” (University of Alabama Press, 2003). The book includes 19 essays that focus on landmark cases in free speech law and how these cases contribute to our democratic society.Dr. Parker is a professor of Speech Communication in the School of Communication at Northern Arizona University. He is a lifetime member of the Freedom of Expression Interest Group of the National Communication Association where he contributes his research findings on Freedom of Expression issues each year. He has been a regular contributor and editor of the Free Speech Yearbook and has published widely in the field. Dr. Parker was nominated by Roger Lavery, Dean of the NAU School of Communication.