COLUMBIA, MISSOURI: Investigative Reporters and Editors is proud to announce the finalists for its 2017 Golden Padlock Award celebrating the most secretive government agency or individual in the United States.

“Undermining the public’s right to know requires dedication, creativity and chutzpa,” said Robert Cribb, chair of the IRE’s Golden Padlock committee.

“The sophisticated methods of this year’s nominees include ever more proactive techniques including aggressive lobbying for secrecy protections and even retribution against requesters seeking public interest records. These are some of America’s greatest overachievers in the field of government secrecy, richly deserving of begrudging respect.” 

The finalists are: 

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, for extraordinary efforts keeping population statistics from the population. Missouri has not made public its basic birth index after 1910 or its basic death index after 1966. But the department quietly sells the same information to researchers as a revenue stream. When a not-for-profit group of genealogists and historians called Reclaim The Records filed requests for the data last year, the state issued a whopper fee estimate: $1.5 million to cover 35,000 hours of staff time to prepare the records. After some legal wrangling, the department suddenly reduced the fee to $5,000. But in another twist, the state then denied the request altogether. Reclaim the Records filed a lawsuit against the department late last year and unearthed internal e-mails in which the former state registrar advised the department to stonewall the requests by producing “mounds of paper.”

Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for steadfastly refusing to provide emails in the public interest and removing information from public websites about key environmental programs. The Center for Media and Democracy filed nine public records act requests, and one lawsuit between 2015 and 2017, seeking Pruitt’s emails during his time as Attorney General of Oklahoma. It took two years, and a judge’s order containing candid criticism of Pruitt’s office for its “abject failure” to abide by the Oklahoma Open Records Act. The resulting emails showed Pruitt “closely coordinated with major oil and gas producers, electric utilities and political groups with ties to the libertarian billionaire Koch brothers to roll back environmental regulations.” But many other emails have been withheld and are subject to a lawsuit. Now, as head of the EPA, Pruitt is helping lead a Trump administration effort to remove information from public websites, including some information about air, water and ground pollution and the sources of toxic chemical releases.

Pennsylvania State-Related Universities, for executing a public mission with public money and little public oversight. In a unique quirk of Pennsylvania law, four universities receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding fall into a legal black hole exempting them from the full effect of state transparency legislation. Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, Lincoln University and Temple University are permitted to block access to records detailing everything from employee salaries to board conflicts of interest to serious crimes. Journalists in the state have hit brick walls seeking details on Penn State’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, the resignation of Temple’s president and firing of its provost. When Temple trustee Bill Cosby resigned from the board following rape allegations from numerous women including a former Temple employee, the response from university officials was a single sentence in a press release. The universities have lobbied with vigor to maintain state-sanctioned secrecy. The effect: journalists and the public remain in the dark.  

Appalachian Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Brenda Weaver, for jailing newspaper publisher Mark Thomason and his attorney because of a public records request. The dispute began with a racial slur in a court hearing in Blue Ridge, Georgia, when both the assistant prosecutor and the presiding judge used the “N” word.  Thomason asked the court reporter for a full transcript. She sued him for libel, but withdrew the suit, then asked him to pay her legal fees. The publisher filed a records request to ascertain whether the court had already paid her costs. Both Thomason and the lawyer were jailed overnight and the sheriff ordered periodic drug and alcohol testing.  In the face of a free-press uproar, the charges were dropped and the chief judge eventually resigned her position as the chair of Georgia’s Judicial Qualifications Commission.  

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, for the remarkable effort and cost invested in creating an illusion of transparency by printing more than a million documents about a city hall bribery scandal in response to a public records request. Reed summoned reporters to a press conference to unveil a wall of paper which included lunch menus for a local school, church service programs and every record containing a reference to Mitchell Street. City Hall is located – you guessed it – on Atlanta’s Mitchell Street, driving up the page count and safely burying any needles of relevant information in a gigantic haystack. The Reed administration had delivered the same records electronically to the FBI. But it would take the city nearly a month before it began providing those same electronic records to reporters. When journalists asked the administration how much it cost to produce the paper records, officials cited attorney-client privilege.

The winner will be announced at IRE’s annual conference in Phoenix, June 24. 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. 

Judges for the 2017 Golden Padlock are: 

  • Robert Cribb (investigative reporter, Toronto Star)
  • Fernando Diaz (managing editor – digital, San Francisco Chronicle)
  • Jason Leopold (senior investigative reporter, BuzzFeed News)
  • Josh Meyer (senior investigative reporter, Politico)
  • Susanne Reber (executive editor of Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX) 

 

CONTACT:

Robert Cribb, Golden Padlock committee chair: 416-579-0289cribb@rogers.com