The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wins 2019 Brechner Freedom of Information Award
A team of investigative journalists at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, whose reporting led the City of Atlanta to overhaul its practices for responding to public-records requests, is the winner of the 2019 Brechner Freedom of Information Award.
The award, presented annually by the Joseph L. Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, recognizes excellence in reporting about freedom of information, access to government-held information or the First Amendment. The award, which includes a $3,000 cash prize, is primarily intended to reward journalism shedding light on government secrecy.
The team responsible for the award-winning AJC series – "How Atlanta Trampled the Public's Right to Know" – includes reporters Stephen Deere, Dan Klepal, J. Scott Trubey and Kelly Yamanouchi, and Editor Ken Foskett. The series was published over the course of 2018, beginning with a March 2018 story exposing how top aides to then-Mayor Kasim Reed purposefully slow-walked requests for public records to protect the mayor and his allies against the disclosure of embarrassing information. The scandal led to criminal charges against the mayor's former press secretary for violating the Georgia Open Records Act.
The winners will receive the award at a luncheon of the Florida Free Speech Forum in Gainesville, Fla., on April 9.
"It's rare for a news organization to pour so much concentrated effort into making sure public-records laws are rigorously enforced," said UF media-law professor Frank D. LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center. "The judges were impressed not just with the quality and depth of the AJC's reporting, but with how much positive change it brought about.
"Criminal charges for public-records violations are reserved for only the most egregious cases. The fact that a former high-ranking city official faces prosecution for concealing government records tells you how flagrant these violations were. Without the dedicated reporting of the AJC team, this story would have come out quite differently, and the city would have taken away a very different lesson from the experience," LoMonte said.
The AJC's reporting began with a March 8, 2018, report about how City Hall officials concealed embarrassing information about how then-mayor Reed and his political allies were deficient in paying their water bills. Reporters obtained text messages from the mayor's chief spokeswoman directing a city official responding to an AJC records request to "be as unhelpful as possible" and "provide the information in the most confusing format possible."
In subsequent stories, the AJC found that a city lawyer evaded a request for records of $1.4 million in legal bills by producing dummy invoices that he passed off as genuine. In another story, the AJC discovered that the mayor's office concealed from the City Council a federal subpoena in a long-running corruption probe involving the Atlanta airport at a time when the council was voting on vendor contracts involving companies implicated in the investigation. One city council member characterized the culture of secrecy practiced by the Reed administration as "the Iron Curtain."
As a result of the disclosures brought to light by the AJC, Reed's successor, Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms, created a new position of "chief transparency officer" and enacted a more rigorous compliance policy for public-records requests, including penalties for non-compliant employees. Responding to a complaint filed by the AJC and its broadcast partner, WSB-TV, the state Attorney General's office brought misdemeanor charges against the mayor's former spokeswoman in February of this year.
"Every day our journalists investigate and report what's really going on," said Kevin Riley, AJC editor. "It's hard work to uncover the truth – but it's crucial to keep subscribers informed and make our community stronger. Throughout the City Hall investigation, a group of dedicated journalists have broken numerous stories around the federal investigation. They routinely faced the frustration of government workers blocking access to the public's information. But it didn't keep them from working to uncover documents and information before federal investigators."
This year's judges included LoMonte, UF College of Journalism and Communications Rob Hiaasen Lecturer in Investigative Journalism Ted Bridis (former editor of the Associated Press' Washington investigative team), and Kelsey Ryan, outreach manager at the National Freedom of Information Coalition (and Pulitzer Prize finalist with the Kansas City Star).
The Brechner Center has offered the Freedom of Information Award since 1986. Last year's winner was reporter Bethany Barnes of The Oregonian. A list of previous winners can be found at http://brechner.org/about/past-awards/.