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APRIL 2019

Annual FOI award recognizes team of Atlanta journalists who cracked open City Hall secrecy


A team of investigative reporters was on the trail of a hot news tip: Top city officials owned homes that were months delinquent paying their city water bills. They asked Atlanta's Watershed Department to produce billing records for the homes. That's when Mayor Kasim Reed's press secretary got involved, instructing the utility agency to "drag this out as long as possible" and "provide the information in the most confusing form available."

Helpfully, she did this by way of text messages that were, themselves, public records -- which reporters for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and its partner, WSB-TV, obtained and published, part of a year-long series focusing on City Hall secrecy ("How Atlanta Trampled the Public's Right to Know").

The team's reporting got noticed -- Investigative Reporters & Editors gave its sarcastic "Golden Padlock Award" to the City of Atlanta in 2018 to recognize it as the most secretive government agency in America -- and it got results: Reed's successor as mayor has hired a new "chief transparency officer" and enacted a code of ethics including disciplinary sanctions for willful violators of the Open Records Act, and the former press secretary is facing misdemeanor criminal charges.

On April 8, the team responsible for the AJC series — reporters Stephen Deere, Dan Klepal, J. Scott Trubey and Kelly Yamanouchi, and editor Ken Foskett -- will be recognized with the Brechner Freedom of Information Award, a $3,000 cash prize given annually to reward investigative reporting that sheds light on government secrecy.  


Deflating secrecy: Will FOI contest over Pats' owner's spa video have a happy ending?

Lawyers for billionaire Robert Kraft are relying on exemptions to Florida's open-records statutes to block disclosure of police photos and videos of the New England Patriots owner caught with his proverbial (if not literal) pants down at a Jupiter, Fla., spa that police busted as a front for prostitution. News organizations including The New York Times, ESPN, the Associated Press and the Orlando Sentinel filed a motion March 26 to intervene in the case, claiming that the videos do not qualify for a public-records exemption that safeguards confidential investigatory materials, since their contents are already widely known.

Kraft was one of 25 people charged in a Feb. 22 roundup by Central Florida law enforcement agencies as part of a crackdown on human traffickers who force women into sexual servitude. He is accused of soliciting sex acts at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa, which has since become a matter of intense national interest, because its former owner has been implicated in helping foreign nationals gain access to President Trump through campaign donations.

Kraft and 14 other men also caught up in the investigation are asking a Palm Beach County judge to enter a protective order that would prevent any evidentiary materials from being released to the public, at least until the case goes to trial.


Lawmakers revive push to conceal university presidential hires behind closed doors

Newly filed legislation awaiting consideration Thursday in the House State Affairs Committee would add Florida to the growing list of states that exclude records of university presidential hiring from the public-records act. Presidential searches increasingly are conducted in secrecy under pressure from private "executive search" firms, seeking to protect their inventory of candidates against having their qualifications and shortcomings discussed in public. The move ironically follows a secretive search at the University of South Florida in which trustees were widely criticized for their lack of transparency, with the names of the four finalists withheld from the public until just days before the selection vote. 

Read the bill...

"Marsy's Law" results in widespread withholding of locations of crimes in addition to victim names

Jacksonville police are regularly withholding information about crimes that has long been publicly available, blaming Florida's new Amendment 6, popularly known as "Marsy's Law," which passed in a November 2018 statewide referendum. While the ballot measure says only that crime victims can ask police to keep their identities private, many law enforcement agencies have gone further in reaction to the amendment and routinely are withholding names of crime victims and even locations of crimes, claiming that victim privacy demands it. Police claim that giving the address of a crime such as a burglary or sexual assault, which took place in the victim'sown  home, is the equivalent of naming the victim. The contents of police reports normally are public record, with minimal exemptions, such as the identities of confidential police informants.

Full story: Florida Times-Union

Bill obstructing public access to crime-scene videos gets diluted before passing

State senators voted unanimously March 27 for a bill creating a new open-records exemption for footage from surveillance cameras that captures the deaths of three or more people. The bill was greatly narrowed from its original version, which would have let police withhold any video "related" to a mass killing, even if it showed only police, or the perpetrator, and not the bodies of victims. Senate Bill 186 by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, now heads to the House for consideration.

Full story:

Lawsuit claims hospital board members retaliated against whistleblowing lawyer

The former lawyer for a Broward County hospital district says in a whistleblower lawsuit that she was “demeaned, screamed at, defamed, mocked and berated" -- and ultimately, fired -- for trying to keep her bosses from violating the state Sunshine Law. Kimarie Stratos, who was fired last September as chief legal counsel to the South Florida Hospital District, is seeking unspecified money damages.

Full story: The Sun-Sentinel

Judge tosses last remaining criminal counts in Broward open-meetings case

In a confusingly similar story, a judge dismissed criminal charges against the former top lawyer for a different Broward County hospital district, who was charged with a criminal violation of the Sunshine Law for taking part in a chain of one-on-one "serial meetings"  with board members that prosecutors alleged were purposefully set up to avoid the need to invite the public. County Judge Christopher Pole had previously thrown out charges against four other officials of the North Broward Hospital District.

Full story: 

Racing the Shredder

Since California enacted a long-overdue reform law entitling the public to see some records of police misconduct investigations, law enforcement agencies have been working overtime to destroy old files before they can be disclosed. Now, a consortium of 30 leading news organizations across the Golden State is rounding up as many police case files as possible, with the goal of creating a comprehensive state database of cases in which officers were investigated for using force or discharging their weapons. The job got a bit easier with the March 29 ruling by a California appeals court that Senate Bill 1421 applies retroactively to records created before its enactment, which should unplug the shredders.

Read the court's opinion here...

Wave of new state laws addresses police secrecy

Thanks to Gov. Gary Herbert's signature, Utah is now the seventh state that requires police agencies at private colleges and universities to disclose their records to the public, as all other police agencies must. Senate Bill 197 responds to a scandal at Brigham Young University, where an officer was accused of misusing his access to a state law-enforcement database to enable the university to pursue religious-based disciplinary sanctions against a rape victim.

Maryland could be right behind Utah as #8. A bill authorizing Johns Hopkins University to start its own private police force is awaiting the governor's review -- and it includes transparency requirements above-and-beyond what a private university would normally have to reveal. Senate Bill 793 requires private-university police agencies to disclose records created and maintained for law enforcement purposes to the same extent as publicly operated police departments -- and also specifically requires campus police to report the surveillance technologies they use and demographic information about applicants for officer positions.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is expected to sign a newly enacted measure, House Bill 19-1119, intended to broaden public access to the records of internal-affairs investigations into police misconduct. The bill puts a greater burden on law enforcement agencies to justify withholding the records; state law now allows agencies to conceal internal-affairs reports simply by classifying disclosure as "contrary to the public interest," without explaining why. 

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In a column for The Miami Herald, investigative reporter Carol Marbin Miller explains why Florida is entering dangerous territory with legislation that would seal off public access to all records about foster-care placements, which journalists have used to expose safety hazards to children.  
Marbin Miller has reported for years on the failings of Florida social-service programs, including an award-winning 2014 series, "Innocents Lost," that exposed widespread mismanagement within Florida's Department of Children and Families, putting vulnerable children into risky placements with inadequately trained and vetted foster parents. The proposal -- House Bill 1249 -- would make stories like "Innocents Lost" impossible in the future.
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"Crime, Justice, & Equity"

April 4-5 at UF's Levin School of Law

Should body-cam video be viewable to the public? Should arrest records be sealed to give people a clean start in obtaining employment? Join the discussion at UF's law school, April 4 and 5, about emerging issues at the intersection of privacy and transparency in the criminal justice system. The conference -- "Technology, Media & Privacy Law: Crime, Justice &  Equity" -- is free to attend and approved for CLE credit for Florida-licensed attorneys. 

Lunch will be served both days, and attendees are asked to sign up to claim their free tickets through Eventbrite:

For more information...

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