Brick Wall and Sledgehammer Awards
Each year, the Arizona Press Club crowns the most deceptive government agency or politician in the state with a Brick Wall Award and highlights the dedicated reporters who shine a light on the truth with a Sledgehammer Award.
This year, the Sledgehammer nominations were so good, we awarded two. Congratulations!
2014 BRICK WALL AWARD
Pima Community College
The Pima County Community College board showed no remorse as the Arizona Press Club bestowed the Brick Wall Award. Shortly after the ceremony, the board discussed public records … behind closed doors. Read more on the board’s reaction.
Pima Community College has promised much but delivered little in the area of openness and transparency. Under sanction since 2013 for mismanagement and lax governance, the college made a habit of ignoring state laws that protect the public’s right to know – all while proclaiming its commitment to public access.
*PCC ignored the state’s open meeting law – a practice that ended only after the Arizona Daily Star filed an official complaint that was upheld. Last fall, college executives started making key presentations at board meetings that were not listed on the board’s public agenda as required by law. The college ignored the Star’s complaints that the practice was illegal, so the reporter filed a formal complaint with the Pima County Attorney’s office alleging open meeting law violations. The complaint was upheld and the college was forced to stop the practice.
*Requests for run-of-the-mill public records – consulting contracts, travel expense records, executive performance reviews, even the resume of a newly-hired administrator – were ignored for months or wrongly denied. Since November 2014, the Star has submitted 15 requests for this type of information. The college has yet to fully comply with nine of those requests as of the date of this writing.
*PCC’s legal counsel has repeatedly tried to make the Star pay to view public records, ignoring a legal opinion from Arizona’s attorney general. The attorney general’s 2013 opinion says that when a public record must be copied to be redacted, the institution, — not the requester — should bear the copying costs. PCC’s attorney delayed the release of numerous records because the Star reporter refused to pay fees. The college attorney continued to insist on payment even after the Star provided him with a copy of the AG’s opinion. In a recent meeting with Star personnel, the college attorney maintained that he doesn’t have to obey the Attorney General’s directive on copying fees because it’s only an opinion that has not yet been tested in court.
*PCC hired a public relations consultant who tried to convince Star management to remove the reporter covering the college. When that effort failed, the consultant announced a new policy aimed at the reporter: the college will no longer answer the reporter’s questions unless they are “couched in professional and respectful language and provide adequate time for response. “’Adequate’ will be defined as a day’s notice at a minimum unless we are dealing with breaking news,” it said.
*The consultant was hired, in part, to solicit positive news articles from other local media outlets while the Star was reporting on PCC’s problems. The consultant’s media plan, leaked to the Star, called for a “media blitz” to obtain positive news coverage from other sources “as a counterpoint to the Star’s mostly-negative and repetitious coverage of the college.”
*Weeks after PCC was taken off probation by its accreditor, it broke the accreditor’s public disclosure rules. College officials are refusing to say who is responsible.
*The Star wasn’t the only media outlet that had problems obtaining public information. PCC’s student newspaper, the Aztec Press, recently published the first part of a three-part series on the lack of transparency at the college.
2014 SLEDGEHAMMER AWARD (two winners)
Anne Ryman, The Arizona Republic
Arizona Republic reporter Anne Ryman received a tip in early 2014 that Arizona State University’s Police department was seriously understaffed, a situation that was creating safety concerns among patrol officers and questions about how well serious crimes, such as sexual assaults, were being investigated.
She ran into one road block after another to obtain public records. But through persistence, she was able to obtain the right documents to tell two compelling stories. The first story was the understaffed department. The second was how the police department’s investigations resulted in very few sexual-assault convictions.
The ASU Police Department refused to turn over all their sexual-assault reports over the past three years, withholding more than 30 reports. They said some cases were still “under investigation.” Ryman knew through police sources that many of the cases that were being withheld were no longer being investigated. She fought the decision and was ultimately able to obtain the reports.
She documented staffing problems through interviews and public-records requests for staffing schedules, budgets, meeting minutes and other records. She requested copies of any and all meetings for police chief advisory board, after getting a tip that there were serious concerns about staffing and safety raised in these meetings.
The police department provided the minutes but with six pages missing. She demanded the remaining pages. Among the concerns revealed in the missing pages, “”… no unity exists in the department” and “the department is short-staffed by 50-80 officers.”
But all of the information still wasn’t there. Several lines were redacted under the heading “Officer Safety Issues.” ASU said the information was “redacted according to the Best Interest of the State.”
The only recourse would have been to sue. But Ryman was able to obtain legitimate access to the full text of the minutes through sources. The department didn’t want the public to know the university’s main campus in Tempe was sometimes staffed by just two officers on a shift. The department’s own policy requires four.
Ryman also was able to document, through public records, that ASU Police investigated 43 sexual offenses over three years and only two defendants were convicted. Through comparisons with national statistics, she was able to determine that those accused of committing sexual assault on the ASU campus are less likely to be convicted of a crime than those similarly accused in the general population.
Her persistence on public records resulted in changes, even before the stories were published. The department suddenly required all patrol officers to undergo training on how to respond to sexual assaults. A week before the story on sex assaults was published, the head of the investigations unit was moved to another job.
2014 SLEDGEHAMMER AWARD (two winners)
Alexis Huicochea, Arizona Daily Star
Over the past two years, Tucson Unified School District has become one of the most uncooperative and outright deceptive governments we have had to deal with. Fortunately for Arizona Daily Star readers, over that time education reporter Alexis Huicochea has become one of the most tenacious junk yard dogs the district, and its “new” superintendent H.T. Sanchez, have had to deal with.
In 2013/14, with Alexis leading the charge, the Star successfully sued the district over its public records and open meeting violations related to Sanchez’ hiring. Since then, under Sanchez leadership, the district has regularly withheld records, provided only partial responses to records requests or denied records even existed.
With resources for filing suit increasingly scarce, Alexis has used a combination of good sourcing and journalistic intuition to spot the deficiencies and demand a full response.
Some of her more productive stories include documenting Sanchez the hiring/promotion of the TUSD board president’s mother-in-law, the existence of an audit showing 80 percent of the district’s playgrounds had safety violations, several of which resulted in serious student injuries, and the award of a consulting contract to one of Sanchez’ Texas cronies, after she was given inside information on the district’s needs, and using a dubious hiring process that evaded district bidding requirements.
2013 BRICK WALL AWARD
Apache County Board of Supervisors
The Arpaio First Amendment Disservice Award, also known as the “Brick Wall” award, “honors” officials and government agencies that do their utmost to ignore public records requests and open meeting laws, hide or destroy public documents and place themselves above the public’s constitutional right to know about their government.
This year’s recipient is the Apache County Board of Supervisors. The board eliminated its Call to the Public from its meeting agendas because of criticism from residents, the White Mountain Independent’s Mike Leiby reported. “I don’t like being criticized in public and to have people come here and say we are doing this or doing that is not OK. I come here to conduct business and I don’t have time (to be criticized),” Supervisor Joe Shirley Jr. said at the meeting. Supervisor Barry Weller tried to restore the Call to the Public but couldn’t get a second on his motion.
The board also ejected a resident who tried to livestream a board meeting, denied public records requests, refused to e-mail public records, and charged fees to review public records regardless of whether copies were requested.
2013 SLEDGEHAMMER AWARD
Carli Brosseau, Arizona Daily Star
The Sledgehammer Award is a tribute to reporters who relentlessly hunt for the truth despite obstacles thrown their way.
This year’s recipient is Arizona Daily Star reporter Carli Brosseau. She is tireless in her pursuit of public records. When told by police departments she couldn’t scan public records related to SB 1070 and would have to pay for copies, she pushed the Arizona Ombudsman to request an opinion from the Arizona Attorney General. The resulting opinion says journalists and the public may use smart phones to scan and photograph records instead of paying for copies.
As a result, several police departments have changed their public-records policies. In a separate stand, Brosseau wrote about the South Tucson City Council refusing to make executive-session agendas more specific. As a result, the council has made changes.
2012 Brick Wall Award
Arizona Department of Corrections and Director Charles Ryan
The Arizona Press Club bestows the Arpaio First Amendment Disservice Award — known as the “Brick Wall Award” — upon the Arizona Department of Corrections and Director Charles Ryan for the agency’s stonewalling for nearly two years the public release of a horrific video that depicted corrections officers failing to render aid to a suicidal inmate who eventually died from his self-inflicted wounds. After months of fighting for the video as public record, watchdog reporters from 12News/Republic media went to court to force the Department of Corrections to follow state sunshine law. Arizona Superior Court Judge David M. Talamante ordered the agency to produce the video and the agency later agreed to pay more than $26,000 of the media organization’s attorney fees. The resulting story, “Watching Tony Die,” shed much-needed light on Arizona’s prison system and treatment of inmates and prompted criticism from correctional experts and a state lawmaker.
For the story, click HERE.