Cart 0 $0.00
IRE favicon

Nebraska Department of Environment & Energy wins 2023 Golden Padlock Award

A staunch commitment to blocking the release of internal emails about a growing public health risk has earned Nebraska Department of Environment & Energy the 2023 Golden Padlock Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors. The award honors the most secretive government agencies in the U.S.

The agency originally quoted the Flatwater Free Press a fee of $2,000 to access internal emails referencing nitrate, a chemical in fertilizer linked to cancer that has been increasingly showing up in Nebraska drinking water. When a reporter submitted a simplified request to reduce the fee, it instead increased by 2,000 percent to $44,103.11. 

“The easiest way not to give documents is to deny documents. And you can deny documents in one of two ways,” said Daniel Gutman, attorney for the Flatwater Free Press. “One is to say there are documents but you don’t get them. The other is to say you have to pay $45,000 dollars for them. Both avenues lead to the same result, which is no documents and less public awareness – less transparency.”

The Flatwater Free Press sued, and a judge ordered that the Nebraska Department of Environment & Energy provide a fee estimate reflecting the actual cost of making the records available. Nevertheless, the agency has held firm in its resolve to withhold the information pending a state supreme court appeal.

“This is the story of a public agency funded with public money in the public interest working diligently to undermine the public’s right to know,” said Robert Cribb, chair of the IRE’s Golden Padlock committee that reviewed nominations from across the country. “The relentless commitment displayed by Nebraska officials who are keeping vital information from public view is a distinction worth honoring.”

The committee also named three other finalists that exemplified the techniques of secrecy and obfuscation the award seeks to highlight. Those other three finalists were the City of Vallejo, California; the City of Bridgeport, Connecticut; and the City of Worcester, Massachusetts.

The winner of the 2023 Golden Padlock Award was announced during a June 24 awards luncheon at the 2023 IRE Conference in Orlando. IRE invited Jim Macy, director of the Nebraska Department of Environment & Energy, to Orlando to accept the award, but received no response.

Read the “Our Dirty Water” series by the Flatwater Free Press. See also reporter Yanqi Xu’s article about her reporting in The IRE Journal’s first quarter 2023 edition.

Watch the presentation of the 2023 Golden Padlock, excerpted from a recording of the awards luncheon, June 24, 2023, at IRE23 in Orlando.

109 Lee Hills Hall, Missouri School of Journalism   |   221 S. Eighth St., Columbia, MO 65201   |   573-882-2042   |   |   Privacy Policy
crossmenu linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram
My cart
Your cart is empty.

Looks like you haven't made a choice yet.