FAC Honors Open Vallejo, Kaiser Health News, and The Maine Monitor with Annual Award

The First Amendment Coalition is pleased to announce the winners of its 2022 Free Speech and Open Government Award: three journalists who strategically used public records to expose government misconduct and accountability failures. Some of this work resulted in significant government reforms.

Through more than 50 public records requests, 15,000 pages of documents, and a California Public Records Act lawsuit filed by her newsroom, Laurence Du Sault of Open Vallejo revealed years-long, systemic delays by the Vallejo Police Department investigating deaths caused by its officers. Du Sault’s analysis of police records found it took the department an average of nearly two years to review fatal officer shootings. Six officers used deadly force again while still under investigation for a prior killing. Her investigation led to the discovery of nearly 50 investigative errors across 17 police killings since 2011, including mishandling evidence and failing to interview eyewitnesses. Following the publication of her investigation, the department released a proposal to modify how it investigates shootings, and the police chief resigned.

Attorney-client privilege is a bedrock right in the U.S. Constitution. Yet “Eavesdropping in Maine Jails,” a series by Samantha Hogan of The Maine Monitor, revealed that in six county jails across the state, the phone calls between individuals who are incarcerated and their attorneys were improperly recorded and sometimes shared with prosecutors and law enforcement, who listened to parts of those recordings. Hogan submitted more than 100 public records requests, brought a lawsuit to enforce access to information, and traveled throughout the state to visit county courthouses to review case files. She uncovered how nearly 1,000 of these calls were recorded, then indexed this trove of information in a publicly available database. Hogan interviewed dozens of attorneys, law enforcement officials, and defendants to support her findings further. Following Hogan’s reporting, policy changes have or will be proposed at the Maine Attorney General’s office, the state’s criminal justice academy, the state Department of Corrections, and several county sheriff’s offices to protect defendants’ constitutional rights.

Fred Schulte of Kaiser Health News last year wrenched loose a trove of 90 audits conducted by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services revealing the government overpaid insurance companies participating in Medicare Advantage by approximately $650 million from 2011-2013. The audits, finally released after a three-year Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, “check medical records to make sure patients have the diseases that health plans are being paid to treat,” or are indeed as sick as the insurance companies claim they are. Schulte found through his analysis that in many cases, claims of illness or severity of illness are not supported by documentation provided by insurers, some of whom were overbilling the government $1,000 or more per patient, per year. Schulte’s reporting also revealed the government has largely failed to recoup these funds from the companies. Schulte’s reporting has led to calls for greater accountability from CMS by members of the Senate Committee on Finance.

“The work of Samantha, Laurence, and Fred exemplifies some of the best public interest journalism today,” said David Snyder, Executive Director of the First Amendment Coalition. “Their dogged determination to unearth the truth, through countless interviews, public-records requests, and even litigation where necessary, demonstrates how a free press empowered by the law of access to public information is the lifeblood of our democracy.”

The 2022 honorees were selected by Snyder and FAC Awards Committee, composed of members of FAC’s board of directors: Scott Lindlaw, Jim Newton, Dick Rogers, and Katherine Rowlands, Board President. Snyder is an advisory board member of Open Vallejo and did not participate in the final vote.

The First Amendment Coalition’s annual Free Speech and Open Government Award recognizes outstanding contributions to the advancement of free expression or the people’s right to know about their government. Each honoree will receive a $1,000 prize. To learn more about FAC and its programs advancing government transparency, free speech, and a free press, go to firstamendmentcoalition.org.

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