Investigative Reporters and Editors has named its finalists for the 2022 Golden Padlock Award honoring the most secretive public agency or official in the U.S.
Drawn from a competitive crop of nominations across the country, five finalists were chosen for their extraordinary commitment to undermining the public’s right to know through delays, denials, court challenges and even surreptitious monitoring of journalists. Among the finalists is a government agency honored for hiding details of how parolees left unmonitored committed offenses including rape and murder. Another attempted to impose a 55-year timeframe for the release of COVID-19 drug approval documents. A third has denied documents from a “transparent” review of state election protocols ordered by a judge to be made public. A fourth targeted university journalism faculty investigating a major philanthropic donation to their school. Another fought for three years to deny public access to police bodycam footage in a fatal shooting that triggered a murder trial.
"The strict internal codes of silence at work in these cases are breathtaking," said Golden Padlock committee chair Robert Cribb. "These finalists offer a compelling reminder of the essential role investigative reporters play in unearthing hidden truths and revealing how public officials paid with public money to uphold the public trust can find their strongest motivation in self interest."
The finalists for the 2022 Golden Padlock Award are:
- The Arizona Senate for keeping secret thousands of documents related to a review of the state’s ballots and voting machines that courts have ruled should be public. The Arizona Republic requested and then sued for texts and emails behind an audit of voting machines in Arizona's Maricopa County to understand the details surrounding an election review conducted in secret. The courts have told the Arizona Senate and its contractor that the records must be released and even imposed a fine of $50,000 a day until the records are made public. Rather than paying or providing the records, the fines have now mounted to nearly $4 million.
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration for trickling out its response to a public records request at a rate that would take roughly 55 years to complete. A group of academics and scientists filed a request last August for records pertaining to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. The FDA denied a request for expedited processing, prompting a lawsuit. The FDA later proposed providing 500 pages of records a month, a rate that would have taken decades to fulfill. A federal judge rejected that proposal, saying the freedom of information request was “of paramount public importance.” He ordered the FDA to initially release 12,000 pages and then produce the remaining documents at a rate of 55,000 pages per month.
- Utah's Department of Corrections for stonewalling public access to supervision records of violent probationers and parolees, including wrongfully redacting vast swaths of public documents. KUTV found evidence the department lost track of more than 300 parolees every month, some of whom committed serious crimes including rape and murder. Over more than a year and a half, the agency denied more than a dozen formal government records requests. While some records did come through mediation, they were heavily redacted. A First Amendment attorney who helped draft Utah’s public records law concluded that a "significant" amount of the redactions had been wrongfully withheld from the public. The agency said the reporting subjected them to “public hatred and humiliation” and has continued to fight against further disclosures. The station has now taken its fight for disclosure to the state level.
- The City of Huntsville, Alabama, and the Huntsville Police Department for their steadfast resolve in refusing to release police bodycam footage showing an officer fatally shooting a suicidal man who had called police on himself. It would take three years, a murder trial, dogged media requests and a judicial order for the public to see the taxpayer-funded footage. When police arrived at the man’s home in 2018, he was sitting in his living room with what turned out to be a flare gun against his temple. A young officer entered the house, raised a shotgun and told the suicidal man to lower the gun from his head. Seconds later, the officer shot the man in the face. The city refused to release the tape, reassuring the public it vindicated the officer. Three years later, after the city devoted $125,000 of public money to the officer’s criminal defense, the jury in the murder trial saw the footage and filed a guilty verdict. A judge finally released the footage to reporters in August 2021.
- The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for a pattern of secrecy that includes paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight cases involving open meetings law violations and the disclosure of documents detailing campus sexual assault cases. This year, the university targeted a coalition of its own journalism faculty after members filed formal requests seeking the university’s donor agreement with Walter Hussman, an Arkansas media magnate who gave $25 million to the journalism school and who also lobbied against the university’s hiring of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. The university rejected efforts to release the donor agreement for months, and after it was leaked to a reporter, officials launched an investigation into the source of the leak. As the school was renamed in Hussman’s honor and faculty members pushed for details, records released earlier this year showed the university attempted to access data on the hard drives of faculty without their knowledge. The names of those journalism faculty members, and the rationale for accessing their computers, was redacted.
The winner of the 2022 Golden Padlock Award will be announced during the awards luncheon at the IRE22 conference on Saturday, June 25, in Denver.