Our Freedom of Information Issue salutes the winners of the 2011 James Madison Awards
Norwin Yoffie Award for Career Acheivement
One midsummer day in 2007, Sacramento Valley Mirror editor and publisher Tim Crews noticed smoke billowing into the air several miles away. A duck hunters cabin on an expansive Glenn County farm compound was ablaze. By the time the fire engine sirens had sounded, Crews was on his way there to find out what was happening.
The twice-weekly Sacramento Valley Mirror, which has a circulation of 3,000, is run by a small staff on a shoestring budget — but Crews' tenacity in the wake of the cabin fire has shown that it doesn't take a multimillion dollar budget to practice hard-hitting, investigative journalism that has an impact. If it hadn't been for Crews' comprehensive series, "Who Killed Bud?," Ivan "Bud" Foglesong's death in that fire might never have come under the microscope.
Following a yearlong investigation, the coroner's office ruled the death a suicide. "One of the lieutenants told the widow, 'We think Bud just went in there and poured a can of gas on his head and set himself on fire.' " Crews said. But he didn't buy it. "I said to them, why would he do that? "
With some digging, Crews learned that the man who perished in the fire had been a commercial pilot. Prior to that, "he'd been a military attaché, trusted with the nation's highest secrets," Crews said. "No drug or alcohol problems, physicals all the time. Not your typical unstable guy."
Using public records as well as information gathered through his own research and interviews, Crews published bits of information in the Valley Mirror that local law enforcement had apparently missed. There was ongoing strife between Foglesong and the district attorney's son, which had flared into violence directed at Foglesong at least once. The D.A. was Foglesong's brother-in-law and a neighbor on the family compound where the cabin burned. Crews talked to the nurses who gave Foglesong emergency medical care just before he died — telling them there had been an explosion. Crews spotlighted inconsistencies within the investigative reports, key evidence that went missing, and the demolition of the burnt cabin without a permit.
Faced with the dilemma that the evidence didn't add up, the sheriff coroner issued a new death certificate, characterizing it as an accident instead of a suicide. The Valley Mirror stories kept coming.
"Finally, the sheriff coroner, after two years, convenes a coroner's inquest," Crews recounted. That hadn't happened in Glenn County in 40 or 50 years. "The coroner's jury came back in an hour, 9-6 for death at the hands of another." The investigation is now at the state level.
The "Who Killed Bud?" series is just one example of Crews' journalistic grand slams. A different D.A. lost his bid for reelection, largely due to Valley Mirror coverage: "[He] said at a domestic violence meeting about a domestic violence victim, 'Lying bitch deserved to be beaten.' So we ran it in 40 point, top story," Crews said, "because it tells you very drastically what the establishment's attitudes are toward women. That just cannot be."
Other stories have landed him in hot water. Crews once spent five days in jail for refusing to give up a confidential source who told him that the new assistant sheriff had stolen a low-quality firearm. Crews has won numerous journalism awards and will be honored with the Norwin Yoffie Award for Career Achievement at the James Madison Awards ceremony. But his raw reportage has made enemies, too — including some within the local legal system. With his propensity to sue government agencies when they violate the California Public Records Act (CPRA) by withholding public records instead of honoring his sunshine requests, this dynamic has spelled trouble.
"His entire philosophy is to exploit the relatively strong public records laws in this state in order to provide his readers with the real deal on local government behavior," said Tom Newton, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers Association. "He doesn't take no for an answer."
Indeed, Crews prides himself on standing up to the powers-that-be. "Young reporters say, 'What's the most important word for journalists?' And I say, 'After compassion, defiance.' "
Yet the Valley Mirror now faces $100,000 in legal fees because a local judge — once the subject of a Valley Mirror exposé — ruled that Crews' lawsuit against the Glenn County Board of Education for violating the CPRA was "frivolous." The steep price tag reflects the price of attorneys hired by local government to take on Crews in court.
"This newspaper can no more afford to pay a $100,000 judgment than a fly," Crews said. "It's ruinous." The case is on appeal, but he views the ruling as "a very well orchestrated attempt to crush a paper that uses the CPRA aggressively. Because in fact, most of the conservative members of the community, including some in Democratic ranks, regard open government as just unwieldy and not good. Just not good for people to know all these things."
The case is on appeal. But if the ruling holds, it could set a very bad precedent, said Terry Francke of the watchdog group CalAware. "It puts any newspaper in a small county in a very perilous state," he said.
Outside of court, Crews still enjoys a great deal of support and admiration — including from Foglesong's widow. "Because of Tim, this thing is going to get solved," said Jan Foglesong, who has since moved to Mississippi, where her husband was buried. "Because of him, we're getting a little justice for Bud." (Rebecca Bowe)
Duffy Carolan is a lawyer who understands how newspapers work. A journalism major at California Polytechnic State University, she started her career selling ads at the Fremont Argus and writing columns for the Alameda Times-Star. So when she graduated from the University of San Francisco Law School, it's no surprise that she wound up doing media law.
Her first law job was at the Oakland firm Crosby, Heafey, Roach & May, where she worked with previous FOI Award winners Tom Burke and John Carne. In 1998 she moved to Davis, Wright, Tremaine, where she specializes in libel, privacy, and communications law, representing many of the major news media outlets in the Bay Area (including the Guardian).
But Carolan is proudest of the work she's done — pro bono — for the Chauncey Bailey Project, which brought together reporters and editors from numerous newspapers and TV stations to help investigate the murder of the former editor of the Oakland Post. She helped the group get access to key documents and fought a gag order that would have limited the ability of the news media to obtain information.
She's handled a lot of big cases, but it's the little stuff that keeps her going. "What I enjoy most," she said, " is my daily interaction with reporters and the really small things that make their jobs a little bit easier." (Tim Redmond)
Investigative reporter Peter Byrne says his award-winning, multipart series "Investor's Club: How the Regents of the University of California Spin Public Funds into Private Profit" wouldn't have been possible without the California Public Records Act.
"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, 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)
Small businesses make up 98 percent of all companies in the United States, employing the bulk of the population. But for decades, big, wealthy operations have been the recipients of federal money designed to go to small businesses.
For 20 years, Lloyd Chapman, president of the American Small Business League, has relentlessly worked to wrench from the government documents that reveal the diversion of billions of dollars a year in federal small business contracts to Fortune 500 companies and other large businesses.
Chapman said he entered this line of work "out of necessity," frustrated after watching behemoth defense corporation Lockheed Martin win a small business contract over a legitimate small operation.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, Chapman learned that 600 large businesses were listed in the federal government's small businesses database. He succeeded in prompting a series of investigations and the exposure of billions of dollars in fraud and abuse in federal small business contacting programs. His work has spurred more than 500 news stories.
Chapman says the solution is simple: stop awarding small business contracts to large corporations.
"It's deficit neutral," he says. "No new taxes. Just stop giving contracts to Fortune 500 companies." (Heather Mack)
Last summer, KQED reporter Amy Standen was fishing for a story when she started to uncover some startling information on methyl iodide, a pesticide that was recently approved by California regulators for agricultural use. Standen spoke with an advisory panel of eight scientists about the health risks of methyl iodide and the discrepancy between the exposure levels the state and the scientists believed were safe.
The scientists' anger at the Department of Pesticide Regulation's decision to green light its use prompted Standen to start combing the highly technical documents used in the deliberation process.
"All I was ever doing was to understand, how did this happen?" Standen said.
The DPR, a part of the California Environmental Protection Agency, resisted releasing documents, but Standen kept pushing. "The deliberative process exemption to the California Public Records Act was a particular obstacle," she said. "It was used to exclude exactly the sorts of documents that would have answered the central question: how were those exposure levels reached?"
She eventually was able to review the documents, noting that the opposition to it made "what we did get all the more valuable."
Thanks to the evidence Standen uncovered, showing potential safety risk of exposure to methyl iodide and how the agency rejected the advice of its own scientists, environmental groups have filed a lawsuit challenging the approval. (Carly Nairn)
November was an especially demanding election season for the four reporters at the Sacramento bureau of the Associated Press. In addition to the reporting on day-to-day activities in the state Capitol, they were charged with making sense of a variety of statewide campaigns. And at the same time, Judy Lin, Don Thompson, Juliet Williams, and Samantha Young worked as team to release a series of remarkable stories on the secretive practices of the state Legislature.
"We made the open records issue and sunshine issues a top priority and [this recognition] is the result of that," Williams said. "Open records and freedom of information are a tenet of journalism and something we strive for all the time."
When the Legislature passed the Public Records Act, it exempted itself. So the four reporters pressed public officials over the secret records and their tendency to hold closed meetings. Lin and Williams attempted to gain entry to a private lunch called by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for all 120 lawmakers to discuss solutions for the state's profound challenges. The fallout of the refusal led to the governor's pledge to keep future meetings open. Other stories by Young highlighted the murky compliance with public records requests. Thompson probed the excessive use of public funds by lawmakers on themselves.
Sacramento bureau editor Tom Verdin told us: "The credit goes to the reporters. I am fortunate to have a really strong and dedicated crew." (Asaf Shalev)
Beverly Kees Educator Award
It's not an easy job to train the next generation of journalists. Media professionals have seen the number of available jobs slashed in the last decade, along with salary levels. School newspapers have been shuttered by budget cuts and censored by overreaching administrators.
But a few notable educators have persevered, infusing thousands of young people with the desire to keep the populace informed. Steve O'Donoghue has devoted his life to that task, teaching for 33 years in Oakland, mostly at Fremont High School, where he founded the Media Academy and was the advisor to the student yearbook, newspaper, and magazine programs, as well as teaching media courses.
"I had seen scholastic journalism programs shrink in the schools and traditional organizations that had supported advisers and students shrivel up," O'Donoghue told the Columbia Scholastic Press Association in 2008, when he received an award for his lifetime of work.
He added: "The world of scholastic journalism that had embraced me when I was a new teacher, assigned to a subject I had no training or preparation in, was gone. At the same time, I knew there was a greater awareness of the struggles of journalism in the schools on the part of the profession, and more resources to train and assist advisers than ever before."
After retiring from classroom teaching in 2004, O'Donoghue worked at the Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at San Francisco State University, his alma mater. He also served on the Journalism Education Association's board in Northern California for many years and helped create JEA's national curriculum for mentoring journalism students. (Steven T. Jones)
San Jose Mercury News legal affairs reporter Howard Mintz and crime reporter Julia Prodis won this award for their use of blogs and Twitter in court — an area where public access has been reduced thanks to the Supreme Court's decision to limit cameras in courthouse hallways and inside courtrooms.
"There's an advantage when there are no cameras — there's that much more craving for information," Prodis said, noting that Mintz kick-started the Mercury News' new media effort when he launched a blog in 2010 providing daily coverage of the federal challenge to the controversial Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California.
"Howard's blog got us started, and mine took us to a more sensational level," Prodis said. At one point, Prodis wrote 70 blog posts in one day after she got permission from a judge to cover a love-triangle/murder-for hire case that lasted two months and eventually found Los Gatos businessman Paul Garcia, gunman Lucio Estrada, and Miguel Chaidez guilty of murdering restaurateur Mark Achilli.
"The judge approved, but only if we caused no distraction to the jury," Prodis recalled, adding that she was concerned that a laptop keyboard would make keyboard sounds. "So it was really great that one of our managers went to Fry's, bought an iPad, and handed it to me."
The D.A.'s office followed her blog, as did the family of the accused. "A community of people who never spoke to each other in the courtroom became fully engaged on the blog," she said.
"People want immediacy," she added. "Especially in the courts — they want something right now." (Sarah Phelan)
SPJ Awards dinner It's not too late to purchase tickets for the March 16 James Madison Freedom of Information Awards banquet in San Francisco. For more information, visit spjnorcal.org/blog and scroll to "26th Annual James Madison Freedom of Information Awards."