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Five finalists selected for 2024 Golden Padlock Award

Investigative Reporters and Editors has named its finalists for the 2024 Golden Padlock Award honoring the most secretive public agency or official in the U.S.

The 2024 award celebrates the best of government opaqueness with five finalists chosen from a competitive field of nominees. Together, their secrecy techniques include hiding vital public records of public interest, ordering a police raid on a newsroom and fighting journalists in court to block public access to records.

"This group of finalists have exhibited unique ingenuity in their attempts to ensure the public is left in the dark about important issues impacting their communities," said Golden Padlock committee chair Robert Cribb. "Their commitment to secrecy is matched only by the impassioned work of journalists fighting to make it public.”

The finalists for the 2024 Golden Padlock Award are:

Los Angeles City Attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto for a pattern of secrecy including suing a journalist for the return of public records that her own office gave out. The records included headshots of roughly 9,000 Los Angeles police officers released to journalist Ben Camacho in response to a public records request. Feldstein Soto later turned to the courts to demand the images not be published, claiming undercover officer images were included. Then, in a second suit, her office argued Camacho is liable for legal costs related to the release. Feldstein Soto failed to convince a judge that any undercover officers were included in the cache of images released. But the lawsuit remains before the courts amid vocal criticism from a coalition of media groups alleging her actions are an attack on First Amendment rights.

The Georgia Department of Corrections for shielding details about deaths, riots and drug overdoses in the state's prisons from the public, journalists, legislators and even investigators from the Department of Justice. Last year, a record 37 homicides occurred in Georgia’s prisons, yet the department issued only one news release between 2021 and 2023 about inmate deaths. The department increased secrecy by heavily redacting incident reports, rarely announcing worker arrests linked to contraband and withholding video footage — information it used to provide — after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began exposing failures in the correctional system and the DOJ opened an investigation. The state agency even failed to comply with a federal subpoena for incident reports, internal investigations and audits until the court intervened.

Marion County Kansas police chief Gideon Cody for leading a raid on the office of the Marion County Record and the home of its co-publisher, Eric Meyer. Police bodycam video shows Meyer’s 98-year-old mother and co-publisher, Joan Meyer, shouting down police officers as they rifled through the family’s personal belongings. She died the next day of a heart attack. The newspaper had been chasing a tip it had received about Cody but had not published the information. The raid has been widely condemned as an illegal abuse of power designed to silence small town journalists seeking to hold powerful figures in their community to account. Cody later resigned after released images of the raid showed him reviewing newspaper documents about himself. But there was other fallout, including the resignation of a senior journalist on the story, who cited anxiety about being a reporter in Marion County.

The Hawaii Department of Human Services for stonewalling a review of its own actions in the death of a 6-year-old girl. Federal law and state regulations require the state to disclose details of cases in which a child dies or nearly dies of abuse or neglect. It took a public interest law firm's petition to open the girl's case file to reveal why she was placed with adoptive parents who are accused of murdering her. Further reporting by Honolulu Civil Beat found that Hawaii reports far less than some other states about abuse and neglect deaths and near-deaths.

The Michigan State Police for refusing to release the names and employment histories of police officers. The data is crucial for reporters, citizens and researchers to identify "wandering cops" who find new law enforcement jobs following disciplinary actions, criminal misconduct or quiet firings. Michigan is among at least a dozen states where journalists have hit walls trying to access records that have helped identify officers that have changed jobs undetected after committing such offenses as planting evidence, beating suspects, taking kickbacks or making false arrests. Even Michigan’s attorney general — the state's chief law enforcement officer — is supporting reporters at the Invisible Institute and the Detroit Metro Times in a current lawsuit seeking to make the records public.

The winner of the 2024 Golden Padlock Award will be announced during the awards luncheon at the IRE Conference on Saturday, June 22, in Anaheim, Calif.

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