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Four finalists selected for 10th annual Golden Padlock Award

Investigative Reporters and Editors has named its finalists for the 2023 Golden Padlock Award honoring the most secretive public agency or official in the U.S.

This year’s award marks a decade of celebrating the best of government opaqueness with four new finalists chosen from a competitive field of nominees. Each of them champions the highest principles of bureaucratic intransigence through techniques that include imposing interminable delays for accessing records, demanding exorbitant fees, launching court challenges blocking public access to records and destroying vital public information and evidence detailing the actions of government officials.

"Reaching the highest levels of government secrecy requires fearlessness in doing whatever it takes to keep citizens in the dark," said Golden Padlock committee chair Robert Cribb. "These elite-level players have distinguished themselves through extraordinary commitment to information suppression."

The finalists for the 2023 Golden Padlock Award are:

  • The City of Vallejo, California, for intentionally destroying key documents related to multiple police shootings in the city. The 2021 purge, which violated the city’s own policy and possibly an agreement with the California Department of Justice, happened with the approval of a senior city attorney. In all, hundreds of pieces of physical and audiovisual evidence were lost – including fingerprints, interviews with witnesses and officers, clothing from the victims, and detectives’ case files – despite pending public requests for those records. The detective who initiated the document destruction was involved in all of the cases, reporting by Open Vallejo found. The scandal has drawn the attention of both California and the United States Departments of Justice, and local residents are now demanding that federal officials take control of the Vallejo Police Department. Earlier this month, California’s attorney general said a civil rights investigation into Vallejo Police is “on the table.”
  • The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy for its staunch commitment to blocking release of internal emails about a growing public health risk in the state. The agency originally quoted the Flatwater Free Press a fee of $2,000 to access internal emails referencing a cancer-causing chemical in fertilizer that has been increasingly showing up in Nebraska drinking water. When a reporter submitted a simplified request to reduce the fee, the agency instead increased the fee by 2,000 percent. The new total: $44,103.11. For that amount, agency employees – instead of attorneys – would review their own emails to determine whether they should be released to reporters. Flatwater Free Press sued. And won. But the records still haven’t been released. The department appealed the decision which is now headed for the state supreme court.
  • The City of Bridgeport, Connecticut, for chronic violations of the state’s open records laws that routinely delay disclosures for more than a year without repercussions. With a backlog of 3,000 unfulfilled Freedom of Information requests, Bridgeport violated public records law 28 times over the past decade – by far the most in the state – a Hearst Connecticut Media investigation found. While the state’s Freedom of Information commission has taken the unusual step of fining the city, the law caps penalties at $1,000. In response to the reporting, a state legislative committee is now pushing to dramatically increase the fines and enforcement for government agencies that violate public records laws. Lawmakers are also considering increasing funding for staff at the state watchdog agency that enforces the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act.
  • The City of Worcester, Massachusetts, for its steadfast devotion to withholding information about internal affairs investigations involving city police officers accused of misconduct. The Worcester Telegram & Gazette first requested the records five years ago to investigate allegations of excessive force, fabricated evidence and civil rights violations. After initially indicating it would release the records, city staff reversed course and denied the newspaper’s request, claiming the records were exempt because of ongoing lawsuits against the officers. When the newspaper sued, a state court judge ordered Worcester to release the records, ruling that officials acted in bad faith and violated the Massachusetts Public Records Law. The U.S. Department of Justice has since opened an investigation to determine whether the city’s police engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force or discrimination.

The winner of the 2023 Golden Padlock Award will be announced during the awards luncheon at the IRE conference on Saturday, June 24, in Orlando.

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