COLUMBIA, MISSOURI: Investigative Reporters and Editors is proud to announce the finalists for its 2015 Golden Padlock Award celebrating the most secretive government agency or individual in the United States.
“There is a unique brand of courage displayed by public officials who deny, delay and circumvent the public’s right to know with a straight-faced sense of duty,” said Robert Cribb, chair of IRE’s Golden Padlock committee.
“Our finalists have excelled in the art of institutional secrecy on matters of vital public interest – from the conduct of police and judges to border safety and the details behind war crimes in Afghanistan. They carry forward a rich tradition of undermining open records laws with ingenuity, commitment and condescension deserving of our acknowledgement.”
The nominees are:
- The Colorado Judicial Branch for shrouding in secrecy the conduct of some of the state’s most powerful and well-paid civil servants. Since 2012, Colorado ’s Judicial Branch has been exempt from the state’s open records laws. That has given court administrators authority to decide what records – from budgets to internal memos – the half-billion-dollar-a-year agency will and won’t release. When Watchdog.org learned the chief justice taught a class on state time and collected two paychecks and a bigger pension, it filed a records request for her calendar. The request was denied on the basis that the disclosure of her calendar could “compromise the safety or security of a Judicial Branch employee.” Meanwhile, the state’s judicial discipline commission has only made public three of the hundreds of cases of improper conduct by judges in nearly 50 years of oversight and continues to keep its budget a state secret.
- The Massachusetts State Police for habitually going to extraordinary lengths to thwart public records requests, protect law enforcement officers and public officials who violate the law and block efforts to scrutinize how the department performs its duties. It normally takes months or longer to respond to news media FOI requests. Requests for basic documents routinely produce refusals, large portions of blacked out documents or demands for tens of thousands of dollars in unjustified fees. Among them, a $42,750 fee for the log of its public records requests and a $62,220 fee for records of crashes involving police cruisers sought by the Boston Globe. A Bay State Examiner reporter was told to pay a $710.50 “non-refundable research fee” to get an estimate of the fee he would have to pay to obtain copies of internal affairs reports. The Worcester Telegram & Gazette concluded: “The Massachusetts State Police is a habitual offender – verging on a career criminal – when it comes to breaking a state law intended to ensure government is accountable to the people it serves.”
- The Texas Department of Public Safety for attacking the media rather than releasing information on the costs and effects of border security. The Texas Observer was unable to obtain records about the company behind the state’s border security plan. The Wall Street Journal couldn’t get answers on how many state officers had been deployed to the border. The Dallas Morning News was unable to learn key facts about a now defunct policy requiring that Texans give all 10 fingerprints, rather than just one, when applying for or renewing their driver’s licenses. Documents recently made public by the Austin American-Statesman show how the agency also sent memos to lawmakers attacking reporters’ stories before they ran. After the state Attorney General’s office intervened, the Houston Chronicle got data from the agency about crimes in border-area counties before and after National Guard troops were deployed. The newspaper concluded: “Much of the narrative that Texas officials have used to justify their surge of state police and National Guard troops to the southern border has been wrong.”
- The U.S. Department of Defense for withholding information about the massacre of 16 civilians in 2012 by U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales — one of the worst atrocities of the war in Afghanistan. After Bales was sentenced to life in prison, the Tacoma News Tribune sought a report on whether the leadership in Bales’ unit was in any way responsible. The request was rejected on grounds that it might impact Bales’ clemency proceedings. A second request was denied on the same grounds, despite the fact that clemency had already been denied. Several Army officials have indicated to requester Adam Ashton that they recognize there is no legitimate reason for withholding the report. Nonetheless, the newspaper’s appeal continues to languish.
The winner will be announced at IRE’s annual conference in Philadelphia on June 6. A representative from the winning agency will be invited to receive the honor.
Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. is a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of investigative reporting.