Investigative Reporters and Editors has named a competitive field of finalists for its 2021 Golden Padlock Award honoring the most secretive public agency or official in the U.S.
Drawn from nominations from journalists across the country, four finalists were chosen for their extraordinary commitment to secrecy, ranging from suing a reporter over a request for public information, denying public access to a report detailing institutional failures that allowed ongoing abuse of children, filing subpoenas to access reporters’ research and deleting personal communications sought through official journalistic requests in the public interest.
“It’s an inspiration to highlight the work of public officials that embody the highest principles of bureaucratic intransigence, self-interest and disregard for the public’s right to know,” said Robert Cribb, chair of IRE’s Golden Padlock Committee. “These are civil servants of deep conviction whose personal pledge to uphold obfuscation make them worthy of public acknowledgement.”
The winner will be announced during the awards ceremony at the IRE21 virtual conference on Wednesday, June 16. If you are registered for the conference, you can add it to your agenda here.
The finalists for the 2021 Golden Padlock Award are:
- Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, for consistently refusing to release his official communications to reporters in accordance with state law. A string of denied requests from Paxton’s office over the past several months has inspired a unique media coalition across the state. Eight media outlets — including the Dallas Morning News, ProPublica, the Austin American-Statesman, Associated Press and The Texas Tribune — are now working together to “pry open the vice grip Paxton holds over his personal texts, emails and memos,” the group nomination reads. As part of a story the outlets published jointly, a Dallas Morning News reporter texted a work-related question to Paxton’s cellphone and later requested all text messages about state business sent to that number on that day. Paxton’s agency said there were no messages. When asked why the reporter’s text wasn’t turned over, a spokesman suggested the office did not need to keep it because the agency does not consider “unsolicited and unwanted” text messages to be subject to its record retention policies.
- The Indian Health Service, for using a little-known federal statute to block the release of an independent review into the decades-long cover-up of a pedophile doctor who preyed on young boys on Native American reservations. The leaders of the Indian Health Service commissioned the report after a 2019 expose by The Wall Street Journal and the PBS series Frontline, and promised lawmakers that it would detail where “the breakdowns occurred and who should be held accountable.” The resulting report did detail bureaucratic failures and criminal acts. But the Indian Health Service blocked its release by arguing it was a “confidential medical quality assurance review” that should be kept secret. The Journal and The New York Times filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the report and sued in federal court after IHS didn't respond. In January, a judge ordered the report’s release and said “literally nothing in the report could be characterized” as a medical quality review. The report remains secret as the IHS appeals that decision. The federal judge has highlighted the important reporting by WSJ and Frontline that has “taken the agency to task for its failures.”
- The Trustees of Algonquin Township in McHenry County, Illinois, for aggressive attempts to fight the release of information related to alleged corruption reported by the Edgar County Watchdogs. In 2018, the Watchdogs began reporting on alleged nepotism and misuse of funds among the employees. Their reporting included accounts of some Edgar County employees gambling with money from the county’s 911 account. At one point, the reporters received a security video of township employees going through records while discussing which documents should be discarded. The Watchdogs posted the video on YouTube. The township responded by asking YouTube to take down the video and by repeatedly subpoenaing the entire contents of the Watchdogs’ Dropbox account.
- Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, for suing newspaper reporter Andrea Gallo over a public records request. Gallo, an investigative reporter for The Advocate and The Times-Picayune, filed a request in December for copies of sexual harassment complaints made against the head of the attorney general’s criminal division. The agency said it would not release the complaint because it contained private information. Landry then took the extraordinary step of suing Gallo, asking the judge to seal the record and prohibit Gallo from disclosing any information pertaining to the complaint. In response, Gallo’s attorney called it “simply unfathomable” that Landry would sue before even attempting to redact portions of the sexual harassment complaint, as the newspaper had suggested. A judge rejected Landry’s argument in March and ordered the release of the record.