COLUMBIA, MISSOURI: Investigative Reporters and Editors is proud to announce the finalists for its 2018 Golden Padlock Award celebrating the most secretive government agency or individual in the United States. 

“Politicians and civil servants committed to undermining the public’s right to know are a special breed,” said Robert Cribb, chair of IRE’s Golden Padlock committee. “Perfecting the art of government secrecy requires ingenuity, courage and advanced techniques as illustrated by the finalists for this year’s Golden Padlock Award. Their inspirational creativity includes destroying government documents, creating false invoices, ordering bureaucrats to breach information laws and accidentally dropping cell phones containing sensitive government business into the ocean.”

“These nominees give us reassurance that there is no shortage of public officials across America anxious to shield us from unpleasant truths of vital public importance.”

The finalists are:

Texas Attorney General communications director Marc Rylander: For his candid advice to civil servants on how to delay and frustrate reporters making public information requests. During a January seminar, Rylander told public information officers that, “Communications guys love it when reporters make a request and you all wait until the 23rd hour of the 10th day to send it back to them.” He then lamented the loss of “real, trained, degreed journalists” who have been replaced by reporters who, “troll Twitter all morning, steal a bunch of ideas and jot down some crappy article.” Journalism, he said, has been reduced to “a joke.” A Dallas Morning News editorial called the speech delivered by a spokesperson for the state’s chief legal officer an “unconscionable disservice.”

The City of Riviera Beach and Councilman Terence Davis:  For going to great lengths — including destroying public records — to prevent the public from knowing why popular city manager Jonathan Evans was suddenly fired in September 2017. At the time, councilman Terence Davis said “legal legalities” prevented him from revealing the reasons behind the firing of Evans who, at the time, had launched an internal investigation into one city council member’s use of public funds to pave a private driveway, and into sexual harassment allegations against several city officials. WPTV NewsChannel 5 made a records request for text messages sent between councilman Davis and two other council members who had voted to axe Evans. Months later, still having not received the vast majority of the text messages, WPTV filed a lawsuit against the city. Once in litigation, WPTV was told the text messages on Davis’ cell phone had been “professionally and intentionally” deleted. When WPTV’s attorney requested an opportunity to examine the phone, the station was told Davis’ phone had accidentally “fallen into the ocean.” As a result of actions by the city and councilman Davis, Evans’ firing remains a mystery to the residents of Riviera Beach.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction: For making director Gary Mohr disappear from view — and public accountability — even as continued lapses under his watch were tied to the deaths of Ohioans. In February 2017, WBNS-TV began filing requests seeking more information after the murder of a college student led to questions about the department’s monitoring of released felons. In response to the inquiries, Mohr’s department stonewalled. Requests for annual evaluations of the state’s sex offender registry were off limits as “quality assurance records.” The department also denied repeated on-camera interview requests. Reporters had hoped to use Mohr’s schedule to find a time to ask him questions, but the agency said his schedule would not be released, calling it a security record. Because of these maneuvers, the public has been left in the dark as problems appear to persist: Another murder has been linked to a parolee who was supposed to be under electronic monitoring. Meanwhile, the department continues to refuse to answer on-the-record questions.

The United States Department of Agriculture: For its liberal use of black ink to redact every single word from an animal welfare inspection report. WISH-TV in Indianapolis filed a Freedom of Information Act request to determine whether a company called Silly Safari Shows had ever been cited for violations of federal animal welfare regulations. In response, the USDA sent the station five responsive pages that apparently contained the findings of an agency inspection of the company. But it’s tough to tell. Every word was hidden beneath black ink placed there by the USDA before forwarding to WISH-TV. To mitigate every possible risk of inappropriate disclosure around the Silly Safari inspection, the USDA even redacted the inspection date and the date the agency and company signed off on the findings. If a picture tells a thousand words, the responsive documents here show what it looks like when a federal agency redacts pages of words in the spirit of shrouding the government’s work in black.

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens: For failing to disclose the most basic campaign finance information and repeatedly denying public records requests. You may know Greitens best as the man accused of taking nude photos of his mistress and allegedly threatening blackmail, but his penchant for secrecy does not stop there. A former Navy SEAL, Greitens has put his experience in classified operations to work in refusing to release information about his political donors and in denying reporters’ requests for public records. Who provided a $2 million donation to his campaign? The donation went through two non-profits, a process that keeps the public from knowing the source of the donation. Who financed his inauguration festivities? Donors who anonymously funneled money through another non-profit. While not the least of the governor’s problems — he’s facing felony charges and multiple investigations — his implacable hostility to transparency earns him the additional burden of nomination for the Golden Padlock.

Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether: For going beyond even state law to shroud public business in secrecy. In early 2017, the city council passed an ordinance to require meetings of a city board to be recorded and published on the city website. Huether vetoed the bill and said: “Here’s the way (transparency) works: It protects you one minute. It stabs you in the back the next.” The Argus Leader newspaper filed a lawsuit in 2015 against the city that went all the way to the South Dakota Supreme Court to get a simple contract detailing what the city called a $1 million refund from a settlement over flawed siding installed on a $115 million event center. After the court ruled in the newspaper’s favor in September 2017, the documents showed city officials weren’t telling the truth: The city received less than half of what Huether claimed. After the drowning of a 5-year-old girl in a park in March, the city defended its safety protocols by citing a 2016 audit officials said was conducted on the park. City officials denied the Argus Leader’s request for a copy of the audit, claiming it belonged to the insurance company. When the newspaper contacted the insurance company, reporters confirmed no such audit exists. Huether is term-limited but has indicated he’d seek public office in the future.

The City of Atlanta: For directing city staff to block records requests and for releasing false invoices that triggered a criminal investigation into alleged violations of Georgia’s Open Records Act. In response to a potentially embarrassing records request from Channel 2 News, former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s press secretary sent text messages to city staff advising they respond by being, “as unhelpful as possible…Drag this out as long as possible…And provide information in the most confusing format available.” In a separate case, a city attorney provided legal invoices totaling $1.4 million in response to an Atlanta Journal Constitution request. Here’s the problem: the invoices weren’t real. City officials buried the real ones and created new documents made to look like invoices for release to reporters without disclosing the sleight of hand, the newspaper found. In March, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation opened a criminal investigation into alleged violations of the state’s open records act. Then, in April, the two Atlanta news outlets filed a complaint with Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr alleging “a culture of political interference” with open records requests at Atlanta City Hall, outlining 10 examples of alleged violations of the law and “a pervasive culture of noncompliance.”

 

The winner will be announced June 16 at IRE’s annual conference in Orlando. 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 2018 Golden Padlock:

  • Robert Cribb, Toronto Star
  • Mark Greenblatt, Scripps DC
  • Saja Hindi, The Coloradoan
  • T. Christian Miller, ProPublica
  • Michael Morisy, Muckrock
  • Katie Townsend, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

CONTACT:

 Robert Cribb, Golden Padlock committee chair: 416-579-0289; rcribb@thestar.ca

Doug Haddix, IRE Executive Director: 573-882-1984; doug@ire.org