Our Freedom of Information Issue salutes the winners of the 2011 James Madison Awards
"It's the backbone of investigative journalism," he said of legislation that allowed him to obtain 12,000 pages of records and databases from UC, the California Public Employees Retirement System, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
Byrne's research determined that UC invested billions of dollars into risky private equity funds and companies in which the regents in charge of making investment policy held significant financial interests. The story led UC Regent Richard Blum, who is married to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to step down from the investment committee. It got the state Senate ordering an audit of the regents' financial practices and the regents promising to appoint a union member to sit on the investment advisory committee that oversees UC's $60 billion-plus portfolio.
Byrne said he stumbled on the idea to do this series while giving a presentation at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism about an investigation of Feinstein's 2001-05 conflict of interest, which was due to Blum's stake in two major war contractors.
"I talked to the students about research techniques and public records," Byrne said, recalling how protests against UC raising fees were going on at UC Berkeley at the time. "And a few students said, 'Why don't you look into Mr. Blum in his capacity as a regent?' "
As Byrne dug into his research, he began to realize that UC had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in business deals that Blum Capital Partners was also investing in.
Byrne admits he reads thousands of pages of financial data that would make most people go crazy. "I'm like an idiot-savant. I enjoy reading them and finding the tidbits and putting them altogether." (Sarah Phelan)
ALICIA LEWIS AND ASHLI BRIGGS
Alicia Lewis and Ashli Briggs, recipients of the Citizens Award, had no idea that recovering documents from a Dumpster on the California State University, Stanislaus campus would land them at the center of a media spectacle.
When the university announced that GOP icon Sarah Palin had been selected to speak at the campus' 50th anniversary celebration, Lewis and Briggs raised objections on Facebook while sunshine advocates filed requests under the California Public Records Act for a copy of Palin's speaking contract.
Instead of honoring the information requests, CSU denied the existence of any such documents.
But Briggs and Lewis discovered portions of the elusive contract after getting word that something fishy was going on. The campus was shut down for a furlough day yet there was clearly activity inside one building — and people were pitching things into a Dumpster, an anonymous tipster told them. "We both kind of looked at each other and said, 'Let's go down there,' " Briggs recalled.
Lewis said she never expected to find anything in the trash bin, but had to satisfy her curiosity. "We decided to pop open that lid," she recalled. "It was overwhelming that there was actually important stuff in there." Amid bags of shredded documents were pages four through nine of Palin's contract, still intact.
State Sen. Leland Yee, who was among those seeking information, held a press conference with the two, and ultimately, the lucrative details of Palin's contract were revealed.
"Anytime you put truth or information out there to be judged, you allow people to make their own assessments," Lewis said. "And they can't do that if the information isn't out there." (Rebecca Bowe)