The SPJ FOI Awards dinner

The Society of Professional Journalists' 20th annual James Madison Freedom of Information Awards dinner is open to the public and will be MCed by Ken Bastida, anchor for KPIX Channel 5 Eyewitness News, and Peter Finch, news director of KFOG, 104.5 FM. Wed/16, no-host bar 5:30 p.m., dinner and awards ceremony 6:30 p.m., Sinbad's Restaurant, Pier 2, Embarcadero, S.F. $60, $50 SPJ members, $40 students ($550 table for 10). For more information, to RSVP, and for late reservations, call (510) 208-7744 (ask for Sarah-Rose) or e-mail.

FOI winners
Presenting the winners of the 20th annual James Madison Freedom of Information Awards

PROTECTING AND EXPANDING the people's right to know is often thankless work. The reporters, editors, citizen activists, lawyers, and (on occasion) public officials who fight the good fight are all too often unrecognized. That's why the Freedom of Information Committee of the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists launched the James Madison Freedom of Information Awards, giving formal recognition to these unsung heroes. They will be honored at a dinner March 16 (see box).


Lowell Bergman

Lowell Bergman, who has been exposing corporate malfeasance for more than 30 years in almost every journalistic medium, is perhaps best known for his persuasiveness with human sources. In the mid-1990s, Bergman, then a producer for 60 Minutes, convinced former tobacco executive Jeffrey Wigand to blow the whistle on the tobacco industry. As later depicted in the movie The Insider, Bergman then pushed hard to get 60 Minutes to air the Wigand segment, which detailed just how much industry leaders knew about the addictive properties of their products.

But much of Bergman's reporting is grounded in document research. In fact, Bergman told the Bay Guardian, it was documents that led him to Wigand in the first place.

"The reason I was actually looking for someone like Jeffrey Wigand was because I had documents from another tobacco company – Philip Morris," he said. "I wanted to see if they were really saying what they seemed to be saying." Bergman suspected that Wigand had more significant firsthand knowledge and eventually persuaded him to go on the record. "So the documents lead to sources, which lead to other documents," Bergman said.

Bergman, who's also a UC Berkeley journalism professor, has since produced many Frontline documentaries on the controversies of the day, including an exploration of California's energy crisis that provided a detailed look into Enron before it imploded. And he was largely responsible for the 2004 collaboration between Frontline, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., and the New York Times that exposed the horrid injuries occurring in pipe factories operated by McWane Inc. The series, which combined heavy document-digging with extensive interviews with McWane employees, won a Pulitzer Prize. (Tali Woodward)


Beverly Kees

Beverly Kees, who was killed in a tragic accident Dec. 10, 2004, was a special person and a special journalist. So the SPJ FOI Committee decided to establish a special award category for her, in perpetuity: the Beverly Kees Educator Award. And it decided to take an unprecedented step and give the first award to her.

This unusual decision was in recognition of Kees's lifetime of service as a distinguished reporter, editor, and lecturer and as an effective and tireless advocate for and educator about the most worthy of journalism and freedom-of-information causes, ranging from quality journalism, diversity in newsrooms, and ethics to professional development in newsrooms.

As the committee said, "Beverly was certainly accomplished enough to receive a lifetime achievement award, but we decided that it was a more appropriate tribute to name a category after her in perpetuity. We chose the educator award because we thought it best captured the full range of Beverly's contributions – her years presenting programs in the San Francisco office of Freedom Forum, her years as mentor to a generation of female journalists, her teaching in the San Francisco State University journalism department, and her very strong involvement in journalism training wherever she happened to be." (Bruce B. Brugmann)


Patricia Holt

Patricia Holt gained national prominence during her years (1982 to '98) as book editor and critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. And throughout her 36-year career in publishing, Holt has been a persistent advocate for free speech and freedom of information. Whether criticizing media consolidation, chain bookstores, or the USA PATRIOT Act, her advocacy has always focused on the sanctity of the building blocks of freedom of information: the writer, the reader, and the independent bookstore.

"I've never seen an industry so turn against the people who pay our salaries as the publishing industry has done to writers," Holt told us.

In her online column, Holt Uncensored (, she regularly decries the consolidation of corporate power in publishing, which is having "a disastrous effect ... on the very health of our democracy."

"[A]n invisible censorship is taking hold of the industry as more and more decisions about what Americans can read fall into fewer and fewer hands," she recently wrote.

In addition, she said, the PATRIOT Act and other new forms of government censorship are "horrible in every possible way. They go along with everything else we see, like the outsourcing of interrogating prisoners and the deprivation of their constitutional rights."

In contrast to her grave concern over corporate and government censorship, Holt speaks in glowing, optimistic terms about the Internet. "The Internet is changing everything, thank god," she said. "When the Internet was first exploding in the 1990s, I thought this would be a real shot in the arm for publishing. Dissident voices have finally found a platform." (Randall Lyman)


'North Coast (Arcata) Journal'

Emily Gurnon
It's the kind of case that has long come to represent everything that's wrong with our political system but that so often becomes very difficult to prove: close ties – and blurred boundaries – between government and big business. In Fortuna it played out in the form of local politico Debi August, a real estate broker and 15-year veteran of the town's Planning Commission, who began pushing for a swanky, 24-acre hilltop development almost as soon as she was elected to the city council in April 2002.

The Humboldt County Grand Jury finally launched an investigation May 4, 2003, following a neighbor's complaint, but when the North Coast Journal tried to get the records, the court clerk said the judge on the case had ordered the transcripts sealed well beyond the 10 days required by law – "until further notice." If the Journal wanted a peek at the information, it would have to go to court – a potentially bank-busting venture for a small, independent paper.

But editor Emily Gurnon and staff writer Hank Sims stayed on the case, and the paper's attorney dispatched several letters. The grand jury finally unsealed the docs last September. The North Coast Journal ran a story, posting excerpts of the transcripts on its Web site. Now the would-be developer has dropped its plans to build. And August is scheduled to stand trial for malfeasance in May. (Camille T. Taiara)


'Santa Cruz Sentinel'

Santa Cruz Sentinel editor in chief Tom Honig and managing editor Don Miller are perfect demonstrations of how the First Amendment and freedom of information are not always issues that fall on a traditional liberal-conservative axis. The two are hardly San Francisco-style liberals: They show a penchant for editorializing in favor of business deregulation and against new taxes and a pullout of our troops from Iraq. They've supported a Home Depot bid to open a store in their town and chided local activists for resisting a freeway expansion.

But when it comes to a free press, they're strong advocates. They penned a couple of First Amendment-friendly editorials last year – celebrating World Press Freedom Day by bringing attention to the cases of journalists jailed or killed for doing their jobs and advocating in favor of Proposition 59, a measure responsible for adding the public's right to access government records to the state constitution and thereby making it harder for local authorities to deny individuals and the media access to government meetings and public documents.

The pieces robustly advocated the right to collect and disseminate information. And for the Society of Professional Journalists, that earned them this year's Editorial and Commentary award. (Taiara)


Thomas Peele ('Contra Costa Times')

It's not easy getting information from the hands of public officials, especially if you aren't a credentialed member of the press. That's one of the main findings of a four-month Contra Costa Times public records investigation coordinated by reporter Thomas Peele. Public records laws don't tell officials to treat journalists differently, but often that's what happens, Peele pointed out.

"We should be able to get no more than a butcher or a cab driver or a dentist would get," he said. During the investigation Peele and other reporters made requests of 86 government agencies, school boards, and special districts and 36 police departments. They identified themselves by name only and found that, in many cases, reporters were interrogated about their identities and purpose in seeking records.

Peele also found that many basic pieces of information, like economic interest statements for top officials (required by the Fair Political Practices Commission), were not immediately available. In fact, in the majority of requests made by Peele and his colleagues, records were not disclosed as quickly as the law requires.

If officials are allowed to continue operating with such an instinct to keep even the most basic records secret, Peele said, the healthy functioning of participatory government is at risk. "It may sound cheesy, but really, our thinking is that this is a cornerstone of democracy. If the public can't get basic information, like the employment contract [of a top official], it's probably indicative of a problem that the public should know about." (Rachel Brahinsky)

Tom Vacar (KTVU, channel 2)

For Tom Vacar, it began with an accident of timing. The consumer editor at KTVU, channel 2, he was at the San Francisco International Airport working on a story when a woman broke through a security gate and bolted for a plane. The passenger was not caught until she had already boarded her flight and landed in Baltimore, and the federal Transportation Security Administration ordered a local SFO spokesperson not to talk to the media about the security breach.

The TSA's secrecy piqued Vacar's curiosity. He wondered, How often were similar security breaches happening, and why was the TSA clamping down on a local official about doing his job? Very quickly he ran into an information wall at the TSA, which was concerned that revealing details about security problems could create new ones if patterns of security lapses could be discerned. But Vacar kept pressing and, after more than a year of persistence, squeezed enough information from the federal government to file news reports on problems at other airports, including those in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. In the process, he gave his viewers a lesson in public information sleuthing, producing several broadcasts that focused on the TSA's stonewalling tactics, which he believed were designed to hide the fact that it doesn't track security problems in a systematic way.

"It was interesting to see the TSA resist giving up this information, because it was ultimately clear they just didn't want to deal with it," Vacar told us. "They didn't want to be embarrassed." (Brahinsky)


Karl Olson (Levy, Ram, and Olson)

First, a little background: (1) CalPERS, the California Public Employees Retirement System, is the nation's largest public pension fund, with some 1.4 million members. (2) For years now CalPERS has sunk absolutely epic amounts of money into dicey investments – we're talking billions. (3) CalPERS has been incredibly reluctant to reveal the details of these arrangements to anyone, including the state workers whose money it's messing with.

It took a lawsuit brought last year by the California First Amendment Coalition and litigated by Karl Olson to pry many of the details out of CalPERS.

Olson, who took the case on a pro bono basis, learned CalPERS had already dumped $13.5 billion into "private equity" funds, which are essentially high-risk, high-return funds run by folks who buy up companies or bankroll start-ups. Olson and company also discovered CalPERS is planning to pour billions more into private equity ventures and is paying more than $200 million annually in management fees to private equity fund managers. Not surprisingly, some of those well-remunerated fund managers have made sizable campaign contributions to the politicians who steer CalPERS, like state treasurer Phil Angelides.

Besides the obvious conflict-of-interest issue, Olson and colleagues helped unearth an even bigger question: what happens to pensioners if these high-risk investments tank?

"Karl is the lawyer in this area," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, noting that Olson has litigated several similar cases during the past few years. "He's been incredibly successful again and again." (A.C. Thompson)


'Oakland Tribune'

Unprecedented amounts of taxpayers' money have gone toward fighting terrorism in the past few years, but Oakland Tribune staff writers Michele Marcucci, Sean Holstege, and Ian Hoffman are among the few who've taken a close look at just how those funds have been divvied up and spent. The trio accessed and reviewed more than 2,000 documents and conducted dozens of interviews for "Missing the Target: A Flawed Plan to Protect the Homeland," a four-part series that ran in September. What they found was an utter lack of planning and leadership from the federal government – even a lack of a clear definition of what constitutes "terrorism" – that has led to screwball distribution and untold waste while leaving certain areas virtually unprotected.

"For some ... guarding the homeland turned into a shopping spree," they reported. "Shopping centers in Nevada County got heart defibrillators. An agriculture commissioner in the Central Valley got intelligence-gathering software to file his monthly pesticide reports to the state."

The more than $250 million allotted to California was distributed without regard to where likely terrorist targets are located or which counties are at greatest risk. Alpine County, with a population of 1,208 and no identified terrorist targets, "got 27 times per capita as much as Los Angeles County, which has 180 state-identified targets, including three in the top 10."

And lack of coordination led different regions to buy incompatible radio equipment, meaning they'll have a hard time coordinating their response in the event of an attack. (Taiara)

Associated Press, Northern California/Northern Nevada Bureau

The local bureau of the Associated Press is making a concerted effort to train its reporters in using freedom-of-information laws – and some of its correspondents have already used them to generate scoops for the organization. In 2003, reporters Kim Curtis and Bob Porterfield spent months looking into how the state of California tracks sex offenders. The two eventually obtained a copy of the state's Megan's Law database and, using it, were able to demonstrate that the state government had lost track of almost half of the convicts it was meant to monitor. Their stories prompted the legislature to consider literally dozens of reforms.

Throughout 2004, Curtis and Porterfield pestered California prisons and jails for documents laying out how much money was involved in inmates' telephone calls. It took them a year and three days to gather all the information, which showed that inmates' friends and families were paying much more than the average telephone user, with corporate contractors collecting most of the money.

A.P. reporters recently have used government records for stories about Mexican laborers and the legislature's borrowing of special-fund money to balance the budget. (Woodward)


Donna Hall

In any given month, San Francisco's Sunshine Ordinance Task Force – the 11-member panel that monitors city agencies' and officials' compliance with state and local open-government laws – might hear as many as a half-dozen complaints from citizens or organizations charging that they've been illegally denied access to public records or public meetings.

The number of complaints would be higher – much higher – were it not for the consummate skill and dedication of Donna Hall, who retired in late December from the task force administrator post she'd held for five years.

Hall fielded about 1,500 complaints a year, and with her knowledge of the Sunshine Ordinance and her exemplary mediation skills, she brought most of them to resolution, sparing complainants and respondents the often protracted hearing and adjudication process.

That work, moreover, was on top of her clerical duties for the task force and its four standing and two ad hoc committees: preparing meeting agendas and packets, taking and posting minutes, and helping to guide procedure during meetings.

"Most of the calls ... I was able to handle through talking with the person, because they usually were misunderstandings of the law," she recently told us. "In working with the departments, it was urging that made some of the complaints disappear. Sometimes, it was just that community persons did not know the process for obtaining records."

Most challenging, she said, was attempting to explain why certain records requests could not be met; it might be the law, the nonexistence of documents, or the overbroad nature of the request.

Another challenge "was to always keep in mind [that] even though I thought a request might be trivial, it was not trivial for the person requesting it," she said.

When the San Francisco Board of Supervisors honored Hall in December for her 40-plus years of public service, current and former members of the task force gave her a standing ovation followed by a champagne-and-cake reception. Small wonder. (Richard Knee) Richard Knee is a member of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force.

Loretta Lynch

When people look back at Loretta Lynch's five-year term as a California public utilities commissioner, they see that her legacy reflects a dedication to openness and accountability at an agency that has become increasingly known for its lack of transparency. When others at the Public Utilities Commission wanted to keep public documents secret, Lynch fought for their release. She also went out of her way to keep an open line of communication with journalists, which helped newspaper readers better understand the complex dealings at the PUC.

For anybody who witnessed the PUC during the past five years, it was no secret that there were sharp differences between Lynch and her colleagues on the commission. That was most evident during hearings on the 2003 Pacific Gas and Electric Co. bankruptcy settlement. Lynch opposed many key provisions of the settlement agreement, but above all she spoke out against the secretive negotiations that produced the settlement, a deal that included a gag order blocking PUC commissioners, including Lynch, from commenting on the talks in public.

When the PUC finally approved the PG&E bankruptcy by a 3-2 margin, Lynch wrote a lengthy dissenting opinion, calling the settlement "an example of how the public interest can be trammeled by ramming through this decision without adequate public review." And though she was unable to influence the outcome, Lynch's written comments will go on the record as a marker pointing to greater access and accountability in California state government. (Matthew Hirsch)


Kevin De Liban and Oliver Luby

Kevin De Liban was at his job at the San Francisco Ethics Commission in January 2004 when he got a strange e-mail from the office of Jim Sutton, a campaign attorney who worked for Mayor Gavin Newsom and a whole host of powerful downtown players. It included a document that seemed to show a plan to use the unregulated money that Newsom's inaugural committee was then raising from corporate donors to pay off some of the $500,000 in debt left over from the campaign. If that was the plan, it would be an illegal laundering of funds.

De Liban showed the document to his coworker Oliver Luby – another young staffer who believed strongly in the agency's clean-government mission. Luby agreed that the document seemed significant. But soon their bosses – Mabel Ng and Ginny Vida – passed on the demand they'd received from Sutton's office to destroy the inadvertently sent document. Luby and De Liban refused, citing state laws against destroying public documents, and that touched off a long battle that ultimately exposed the contents of the memo, tarnished Sutton and the mayor, and forced the campaign to return about $50,000 it had already received.

By standing up to their bosses and the city's political power brokers, Luby and De Liban exposed a major financial scandal, albeit one that city regulators have yet to fully investigate. (Steven T. Jones)