The First Amendment Coalition is proud to announce the recipient of its 2018 Free Speech & Open Government Award is the nonprofit newsroom ProPublica, selected for its extensive use of public records to increase transparency around political appointees at thehighest levels of government.
This year’s award goes to ProPublica staffers Derek Kravitz, Al Shaw, Claire Perlman and Alex Mierjeski, who will be honored Thursday, December 6 at the California Press Foundation’s Annual Winter Meeting in San Francisco. Each will receive a plaque and a share of the $1,000 prize money.
When President Donald Trump took office in 2017, the White House said publicly it was deploying 520 political appointees throughout the government but refused to give details. In response, ProPublica launched an enormous fact-finding mission that involved filing more than 200 Freedom of Information Act and Form 201 ethics requests to every federal agency to collect names, titles, roles and offices of hundreds of political appointees.
The work culminated in the publication of several in-depth stories and databases. That includes the Trump Town dataset, the first authoritative searchable database of 2,724 political appointees, including Trump’s cabinet, White House staffers, senior government officials within the government, along with their federal lobbying and financial records. Many, if not most, of these appointees would have otherwise slipped below the radar as they were not subject to Senate confirmation or review.
“The task that ProPublica took on was enormous, to say the least—it fought and negotiated for access to public information every step of the way to shed light where light was needed,” said FAC Executive Director David Snyder. “Its work paid off and is a great example of just how important aggressive and meticulous investigative journalism is.”
ProPublica used the data to publish several “Trump Town” investigative pieces which exposed how dozens of obscure Trump campaign staffers, including contributors to right-wing news site Breitbart and others known to have embraced conspiracy theories, had populated the government through hiring mechanisms meant for short-term political appointees. They also found at least 188 former registered lobbyists in the Trump administration, many of whom once lobbied in the same areas that are regulated by the agencies they joined.
Ever since, several appointees have resigned and, after pressure by seven Democratic senators demanding more transparency, the White House began releasing ethics waivers of its appointees in June.
Every day, news organizations, think tanks, congressional committees, nonprofits and the public use ProPublica’s searchable datasets to better understand who works in the Trump administration, what they do and what financial conflicts of interest they might have.
A few highlights of the coverage that resulted from these efforts include:
The Washington Post found at least 16 appointees were White House liaisons, acting as President Trump’s eyes and ears.
Bloomberg found that nearly 75% of Trump appointees were men. It also discovered Curtis Ellis, a former Breitbart writer and labor lobbyist, had been appointed at Labor—after that reporting came out, Ellis resigned to be a policy adviser at a Trump-backed nonprofit.
The New York Times uncovered who was rolling back Obama-era regulations in addition to how lobbyists, and their potential conflicts of interest, were populating the Trump administration.
Read more ProPublica’s “Trump Town” series here.
The 2017 Free Speech & Open Government Award went to Jennifer Lynch and Dave Maass of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Peter Bibring of the American Civil Liberties Union-Southern California (ACLU), who were selected for their joint work to bring accountability and transparency to the use of automated license plate readers (ALPRs) by police and other entities.
The award recipients, selected from nearly two dozen nominees, were honored November 30 at the California Press Foundation’s 140th Annual Winter Meeting in San Francisco. The winners received a plaque and a $1,000 award.
“We’re thrilled to award this team for their diligence and creativity in fighting for access to records to advance transparency and ‘the people’s right to know,’” said FAC Executive Director David Snyder.
The ACLU-EFF team’s work included advocacy in California courts, the state legislature and a broad-ranging public advocacy campaign to bring visibility to the use of ALPRs, high-speed cameras used by police officers to scan passing vehicles. The cameras collect license plate numbers as well as other information, sometimes capturing images of vehicle occupants.
In August, EFF and the ACLU secured an important victory in the California Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department could not justify withholding records collected by ALPRs by relying on the so-called “investigative records” exemption to the California Public Records Act (CPRA). The ruling set an important precedent at a time when police are increasingly using dragnet-style technologies to surveil the public.
Together, LAPD and LACSD reportedly collect, on average, three million license-plate scans every week and, in total, maintain a database of roughly half a billion records. These records can be used to trace a person’s past movements, determine patterns of behavior, and reveal intimate details such as where individuals work or who they live and associate with.
The EFF-ACLU team also worked in the California Legislature, helping to draft and get passed a bill that requires all agencies or individuals that use ALPRs to publicly post privacy and usage policies. They also created a Google map of jurisdictions that use the cameras. In addition, the team recently filed CPRA requests to state agencies for records related to data sharing and plan to publish those findings later this year.
First Amendment Coalition is proud to announce the recipients of the organization's 2016 Free Speech & Open Government Award. Out of more than two dozen nominees, two contestants will be honored, one representing a mainstream news organization, and the other representing small-scale community journalism. What they share is their diligence in pursuit of access to public records in order to report stories that advance government transparency and “the people’s right to know.”
The winners are journalists Thomas Peele and Caroline Titus. The following is from the award citations for each:
THOMAS PEELE is an investigative reporter, teacher and open government advocate who filed hundreds of public records requests this year to build a database of the 944 weapons lost by or stolen from California police officers in the last six years. With characteristic persistence, Peele, who writes for the Bay Area News Group, had to overcome frequent official resistance to disclosure. The story is emblematic of Peele's investigative work over his 16 years in California journalism. A self-styled hell-raiser, he estimates he has filed about 10,000 state public records requests and 500 FOIA requests. His commitment doesn't stop there. Among other things, Peele perpetuates the spirit and skill of enterprise reporting by teaching public records and access to students at the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
CAROLINE TITUS is the editor and publisher of the tiny Ferndale Enterprise in Humboldt County. This one-woman newsroom has carried on an 18-month battle with the Humboldt County Fair Association over disclosure of financial records. Even before the records dispute, her husband, Stuart Titus, the association’s general manager, faced mounting pressure from the Fair Board to suppress the Enterprise’s coverage–a demand he refused, costing him his job in 2012. The result: the couple filed a successful First Amendment and wrongful termination suit; and the newspaper won access to the records, only to have the Fair Association restrict access again. Now they’re back in court, fighting on for access. And the Enterprise continues its reporting on the monthly Humboldt County Fair Association board meetings.
The 2016 recipients of the Free Speech & Open Government Award competition were honored Thursday, December 1 at the California Press Foundation’s 139th Annual Meeting in San Francisco. Each received a check from FAC for $1000 and a plaque.
The 2015 recipients of the Free Speech & Open Government Award competition were honored Thursday, December 3 at the California Press Foundation’s 138th Annual Meeting in San Francisco.
The two winners of this year’s awards used different methods to accomplish their goals one upholding the finest traditions of community journalism and the other demonstrating the effectiveness of citizen activism in holding officials accountable.
They are both equally deserving of public honor and emulation for their advancement of government transparency:
● Monterey County Weekly is recognized for its years-long effort, led by Editor Mary Duan and Staff Writer Sara Rubin, to unearth public records, conduct interviews and produce an ambitious series outlining the story behind the story of a sexual abuse case involving Father Edward FitzHenry and the Monterey Diocese. (Pictured left: The Monterey County Weekly's CEO Bradley Zeve, FAC Executive Director Peter Scheer, Staff Writer Mary Rubin, Editor Mary Duan, Publisher Erik Cushman and Attorney Roger Myers, Bryan Cave, LLP, who represented the MCWeekly in unsealing Diocese records.)
The paper reviewed nearly 1,350 pages of documents, conducted numerous sensitive interviews, while attorney Roger Myers of the San Francisco law firm Bryan Cave, waged a successful legal battle on behalf of the Monterey County Weekly to unseal records. The revelations from the unsealed court documents and in-depth reporting by Duan and Rubin resulted in an unusually transparent dissection of the case, describing not only the details but exploring the human aspects of the subjects.
Citizen activist Bill Branch, pictured with FAC Executive Director Peter Scheer, became a citizen activist in 2011 when the local fire chief ran a successful campaign for the Loomis, CA town council. Branch believed this double duty presented a conflict of interest, and he, along with two other concerned citizens, Marilyn Jasper and Janet Thew, began to attend public meetings and request contracts and other public documents.
Despite tremendous resistance from local officials, Branch’s efforts revealed that Fire Chief David Wheeler was collecting a $137,000/year CalPERS pension from the Alameda Fire Department at the same time he was working as a CalPERS covered parttime fire chief in Loomis. Branch, Jasper and Thew kept up the pressure with CalPERS and the fire board, and finally saw results for their persistence in October when an administrative judge declared that Wheeler and the fire district had conducted a "five year scheme" to circumvent California pension law and ordered that he repay about $460,000 to CalPERS. The district likewise was told to repay its share of the benefits. Later in the month the full CalPERS board upheld the decision without hearings.
There were many outstanding nominees individuals and groups deserving of our thanks and recognition for their tireless work to protect the people’s right to know, including the work of Jessica Pishko, a San Francisco based writer who produced a powerful story of prison guard abuses at High Desert State Prison for Rolling Stone Magazine; Thadeus Greenson, editor of the North Coast Journal in Humboldt County, for his single handed and sophisticated pursuit of police dashboard camera videos; an extraordinary series of stories by Julie K. Brown of the Miami Herald on corruption and abuse in Florida Prisons; the Center for Public Integrity's vast body of work on behalf of open government and unearthing public documents; and the Cal State, Fullerton, Daily Titan for standing up to official hostility from the school's administration.
Each of the First Amendment Coalition awards will be accompanied by a $1,000 prize.
This year FAC received 30 nominations covering the efforts of journalists, individuals, government officials, educators, attorneys, community groups, non-profit journalism organizations and newspapers.
The two 2014 winners of this year’s awards use different methods to accomplish their goals—one upholding the finest traditions of investigative journalism and the other demonstrating the effectiveness of advocacy using government data and the internet. They are both equally deserving of public honor and emulation for their advancement of government transparency:
Sacramento Bee investigative reporter Charles Piller is honored for his three-year effort to uncover construction flaws and apparent fraud in the $6.5 billion project to replace the eastern span of the earthquake-vulnerable Bay Bridge. To report the story, the Bee said, Piller "obtained more than 600,000 pages of testing files, contracts and financial records, and interviewed hundreds of experts and insiders." In 2013, despite "groundless attacks by public officials," the paper said, Piller's coverage prompted legislation "that added transparency and accountability to all new engineering megaprojects.
CARR's facility-by-facility 10-year summaries
Chris Murphy and Christina Selder began CARR
(Consumer Advocates for Residential Care Facility Reform) by assembling a database with 10-year rolling records of complaints and enforcement actions against facilities in San Diego and Imperial counties, making it available electronically, and providing the public with original source documents as well as CARR’s website, making this information available to the general public, was launched in 2011.
There were many outstanding nominees—individuals and groups—whose honorable work is deserving of our thanks and recognition for their tireless work to protect the people’s right to know, including the work of attorneys Kelly Aviles and Paul Boylan; educators Marcy Burstiner, Chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University, and Bay Area News Group Investigative Reporter Tom Peele who is also a teacher at University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
Also, student journalists from the Playwickian high school newspaper in Pennsylvania, who resisted heavy-handed administration interference in editorial decisions; San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jaxon Van Derbeken for tireless and powerful coverage of cozy relationships between PG&E and the state PUC, serious problems in the Bay Bridge construction project and missteps in fire response to the crash of an airliner at San Francisco Airport; and reporter Beau Yarbrough of the San Bernardino County Sun and Inland Valley Daily Bulletin for stories of fraud and secrecy at the Rialto Unified School District.
The First Amendment Coalition Award winners received $1,000 prizes, presented at the 137th Annual Winter Meeting of the California Press Foundation last December in San Francisco.