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Cited for Tenacity and Courage, the Indianapolis Star and the Courier-Journal at Louisville Share Top FOI Award

The Indianapolis Star and The Courier-Journal at Louisville demonstrated the impact of tenacity and courage with two very different entries in the 2011 Best of Gannett Freedom of Information Awards.

The Indianapolis Star was cited for a single, months-long effort that exposed the biggest scandal in Indiana in years.

The Courier-Journal was cited for a range of work on many fronts that showed its unrelenting pressure on public officials to govern in the open.

Three other sites were named finalists: The Burlington Free Press, the Poughkeepsie Journal and the Detroit Free Press.

A special citation was given to The Post-Crescent at Appleton.

Judges gave two top awards to put a spotlight on the importance of commitment in both cases. Great journalism happens when a reporter courageously challenges major institutions and has the commitment to stick with it for months. It also happens when an entire newsroom has the commitment to let no violation of FOI statutes go unchallenged.

Neither is easy, but judges saw similar dedication across the entries in this year’s contest. There was excellent journalism and deep commitment across the board, regardless of size. The judges commended the work of every entry.

The FOI awards honor Information Centers that fight legal battles for public records and meetings, adapt First Amendment efforts to online platforms, publish editorial campaigns to educate the public about FOI and open-meeting laws, resist pressure from government entities or special-interest groups seeking to suppress the news and campaign to force government entities to open the door to the public and the media.

Judges were Barbara W. Wall, vice president/associate general counsel; Jack Marsh, president, The Freedom Forum’s Diversity Institute; and Kate Marymont, vice president/news.

The two top winners receive $4,000 each; finalists receive $2,000.

The Indianapolis Star reporter John Russell set out to determine if Duke Energy skirted the law by working with state regulators to approve $1 billion in cost overruns at a massive new power plant. That directly affected 700,000 utility customers by raising their rates.

Russell filed 23 open-records requests with myriad agencies and uncovered months of secret meetings that violated state law.

The state’s top regulator was fired and indicted on three felony counts. Three Duke Energy officials resigned or were fired. Hearings are underway on charges that Duke concealed evidence, committed fraud and grossly mismanagement the project.

Most significant, perhaps, is that the state has asked that the $1 billion in cost overruns be disallowed, which would save customers hundreds of millions of dollars on their electric bills.

FOI judges said: “Is there any bigger challenge than taking on Duke Energy, the major utility, and the Utility Regulatory Commission and the governor’s office? Talk about courage. The Indianapolis Star showed real courage.”

The Courier-Journal at Louisville finds no battle for open records and open meetings too small or too large. The newspaper’s message to officials across Kentucky is that The Courier-Journal will always challenge withheld records and secret meetings.

The 2011 portfolio of examples ranged widely:

  • a court battle with the state over records of child abuse;
  • a battle with the county over misconduct by detectives;
  • and a battle with Lexington police for the records of an investigation into a state lawmaker.

    The 14 examples submitted for 2011 continued a long tradition of holding public officials accountable. This has been a hallmark of The Courier-Journal.

    The Courier-Journal also does a good job of letting the public know that it’s fighting for their interests. Stories about their efforts often accompany the mainbar. This is an appropriate way to remind readers that the newspaper is fulfilling readers’ expectation that they do this type of journalism.

    Judges said: “The Courier-Journal never lets up on any front. Never. They aren’t just watchdogs, they are bulldogs.”

    The three FOI finalists:

    The Burlington Free Press waged an unrelenting crusade to create more open government in Vermont. The campaign spanned four years but reached a turning point in 2011 as true reform happened.

    In an unusual approach, The Free Press used the power of its newspaper and web site to bring about change rather than getting involved in court battles. After more than 100 editorials over four years, the Legislature ruled that judges “shall” reward costs to plaintiffs in open-records cases the government loses, rather than “may.”

    That proved to be a turning point and changes followed.

    The Legislature is paring the lengthy list of exemptions to open records. The Supreme Court has called for new policies and enforcement.

    Court battles will be necessary at times, and Gannett remains committed to waging them. But Burlington has proven how effective resourceful journalists can be taking issues head-on and using the power of published words.

    The Poughkeepsie Journal was honored for a chilling series on abuse and neglect of disabled residents in state institutions.

    Mary Beth Pfeiffer first did trailblazing work in 2010 that revealed institutions for the disabled were amassing federal Medicaid funds but investing little in the residents.

    In 2011, she turned her attention to the kind of care they were receiving and produced a series that exposed wretched conditions, abuses by staff, lack of oversight and an ineffective disciplinary system.

    The state now is investigating three deaths at the residences. They are monitoring employees aggressively. And three developmental centers are being closed.

    Judges said: “This work showcased the power of FOI. The journalism led directly to facilities being closed and major reforms in discipline and oversight. That was made possible by the reporter’s tenacious use of the Freedom of Information Law.”

    The Detroit Free Press was honored because of the array of stories across a broad swath of topics. Watchdog work is done in every corner of the operation, proving the newsroom is steeped in an FOI culture. Also noteworthy was the consistently compelling storytelling and digital delivery.

    Judges said: “Their writing is always compelling. They reach new audiences by presenting digital information effectively. And they use the editorial club when needed. It’s an impressive ongoing commitment.”

    A special citation was given to The Post-Crescent at Appleton for courage in the pursuit of truth.

    Tough FOI stories often require determination and tenacity. That can be challenging in a smaller community, where everyone knows everyone. A powerful lobbying effort can be launched against a newspaper.

    The Post-Crescent stood firm when several highly placed members of the community rallied around the dean of a local university and tried to derail coverage of what started as a story of a domestic incident.

    By going to court to open records, The Post-Crescent revealed serious misconduct by the dean that led to his departure, as well as a coverup by the university system.