James Madison Freedom of Information Award Winners

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter has been handing awards for 22 years to journalists, educators, public officials, and citizens who best exemplify the importance of open and accountable government and a free and diligent press. And every year the Guardian recognizes the winners and helps highlight the important issues that they raise for the Bay Area and beyond. Here are this year’s winners:

Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement Award

ROWLAND "REB" REBELE


Three few years ago the Oakland Unified School District announced that, due to budget constraints, it was shutting down all the student-run newspapers in the district. Rowland "Reb" Rebele lives in Aptos, but he read about the shutdown in a San Francisco Chronicle column.

He picked up the phone, made some calls, and found out the situation was desperate and how much money was needed. He then wrote a check sufficient to resurrect the student newspapers for a year. Then he kept on writing checks to keep the papers going last year and again this year. This was typical of Rebele. No one asked him for help. He received virtually no acknowledgment for his gift. But his timely action turned the lights back on for fledgling newspapers that were out of money and, it seemed, out of luck.

Rebele is a First Amendment mensch (a description that James Madison, had he any familiarity with Yiddish, would have approved of). In his half century of publishing community newspapers that he owned and operated in Coalinga, Chula Vista, and Paradise in California and across the country, he was energetic, inspiring, and devoted to his readers and his communities, and a demon in pushing for open government and accountability. He pursued the same policies as a stalwart for half a century in the California Newspaper Publishers Association and as an activist president who brought key reforms and exceptional leaders to the organization.

Rebele has been a director of the California First Amendment Coalition for a decade. He quickly became the one truly indispensable member of the organization, pushing it, pulling it, holding it together, and cajoling it to broaden its activities because he felt the organization and its mission were vital.

He has also launched an innovative internship program at Stanford University. Rather than just give money to the school, he and his wife, Pat, created a program that has enabled dozens of students to get hands-on experience writing for real newspapers in California. Quietly and selflessly, Rebele has spent his newspaper career fighting the good fight for First Amendment and public interest principles. (Bruce B. Brugmann)

Beverly Kees Educator Award

ROBERT OVETZ


Art Institute of San Francisco instructor Robert Ovetz was fired after he criticized the administration for confiscating a magazine his students produced for his class last December.

Ovetz, who had taught at the institute for three years, told his students to create a "culturally critical" magazine as their final project for a cultural studies class he taught last fall. They produced a 36-page zine called Mute/Off.

Less than 24 hours after he and students distributed 500 copies of the magazine, which Ovetz printed with the institute’s copy machine, most were gone. Ovetz initially attributed their disappearance to popularity, but he soon learned from students that the administration of the school, which was purchased by Goldman Sachs and General Electric last year, had removed them from its campuses and even literally pulled them out of students’ hands.

"This is an example of how a corporation is not held accountable for upholding basic constitutional rights [to] free speech. This is a private company that’s operating as an institution of higher learning," Ovetz told the Guardian. "Its only interest is its bottom line, and its bottom line is profit."

Ovetz complained to the administration about vioutf8g the students’ freedom of speech and received his pink slip Dec. 20, 2006. Dean of Academic Affairs Caren Meghreblian told Ovetz the magazine possibly violated copyright law by reproducing corporate logos without permission and had grammatical errors. She also said a story in the magazine called "Homicide," about three white kids playing a video game as black gangsters, might be racist.

After Ovetz and students complained and the media reported the story, the administration allowed students to redistribute the magazines, but it still refuses to give Ovetz his job back. (Chris Albon)

To size up the magazine yourself, visit www.brandedmonkey.com/muteOffLowRes.pdf.

Citizen

RYAN MCKEE


The object of the California Public Records Act is to ensure the people’s right to know how their state and local governments are functioning. Newspapers are often the entities that test the limits and loopholes of the law. But in January 2006 an 18-year-old college student, Ryan McKee, undertook an audit of each of the 31 California state agencies that was the first of its kind. McKee tested how these agencies, which he personally visited, responded to simple requests to view and get copies of readily available public documents. The results revealed a disturbing pattern. Several agencies performed miserably, including the Department of Justice, which counsels and represents many other state agencies on the Public Records Act, and all of the agencies violated at least one aspect of the law. Common problems included asking for identification, making illegal charges, and taking longer than allowed to release information. McKee undertook the audit while volunteering for Californians Aware, a nonprofit where his father, Richard McKee, is president. A copy of the audit, including its results and grades, was sent to each agency to help it better understand and adjust to its responsibilities. (Sarah Phelan)

Journalists

MICHELE MARCUCCI AND REBECCA VESELY, ANG NEWSPAPERS


ANG Newspapers regional reporters Rebecca Vesely and Michele Marcucci are being honored for the series "Broken Homes" and their unflinching pursuit of public records that exposed negligent care administered to people with autism and other forms developmental disabilities. The series highlighted problems ranging from a lack of proper supervision to unlicensed officials working at health care facilities. Some of these offenses were then linked to patient deaths.

The award recognizes the daunting and tedious task that befell the journalists: 15 months of scouring thousands of hard-copy papers from dozens of sources that included licensing agencies, multiple law enforcement bureaus, and coroner’s offices. The results were entered into a database and cross-checked against other sources of information.

"It’s not like we work at the New York Times, where you can lock yourself in a room for a year. This is one-stop shopping here," Marcucci told the Guardian, noting that both reporters continued their daily beats while working on the project. The series was well received and helped prompt state officials to reinstate inspections of licensed facilities that had been eliminated due to budget cuts. (Christopher Jasmin)

ANDREW MCINTOSH AND JOHN HILL, SACRAMENTO BEE


Two reporters from the Sacramento Bee, Andrew McIntosh and John Hill, get Freedom of Information props for exposing the cronyism and the corruption of the California Highway Patrol.

The two wrote a series of articles detailing how the CHP violated state and department regulations in awarding contracts for items ranging from pistols to helicopters.

"The CHP spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on equipment and goods," McIntosh told the Guardian. "That’s taxpayer money."

McIntosh said he and Hill took a systematic look at the department’s bidding process and found it was not competitive. The investigation led to the suspension of one officer, Gregory Williams, who the reporters found had awarded $600,000 worth of contracts to his daughter’s company for license plate scanning devices, $500,000 of which was canceled after the reporters exposed the scandal.

The reporters also found the CHP, which controls signature gathering at the Department of Motor Vehicles and other state buildings, denied more than 100 applications for permission to register voters or solicit signatures. Other stories pushed Senate majority leader Gloria Romero and Assemblymember Bonnie Garcia to call for a state audit of the CHP.

McIntosh told us the investigation showed "the CHP is not above public scrutiny or the law when it comes to business dealings." (Albon)

MEERA PAL, CONTRA COSTA TIMES


A good mayoral race isn’t really fun unless a bit of scandal emerges, like it did in Pleasanton two weeks before the November 2006 election.

Meera Pal decided to research the roots of a story that was handed to her by city council member Steve Brozosky, who was challenging incumbent mayor Jennifer Hosterman. Brozosky gave Pal e-mails his campaign treasurer obtained through open-records laws that showed Hosterman may have used her city e-mail account to solicit campaign donations and endorsements, a violation of state law.

But Pal went beyond Brozosky’s story and submitted her own public records requests for the city e-mail account of the mayor, as well as a year’s worth of e-mail from Brozosky and the three other council members.

Pal’s public records request revealed that Brozosky’s inbox was completely void of any e-mail, something neither he nor the city’s IT manager could explain. Brozosky is a computer expert who runs a company that vends city Web site software, so his technical expertise made the situation even more suspicious.

Investigations revealed it was just a setting on his computer that was inadvertently scrubbing the e-mail from the city’s server. Though both violations aren’t necessarily serious crimes, the race was close enough that dirt on either side could have had a profound impact on the outcome, and the results show 68,000 voters who were truly torn during the last two weeks before election day while Pal was reporting these stories. Hosterman eventually won by just 188 votes. (Amanda Witherell)

SUSAN SWARD, BILL WALLACE, ELIZABETH FERNANDEZ, AND SETH ROSENFELD, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE


In the wake of 2003’s so-called Fajitagate police scandal — in which San Francisco officer Alex Fagan Jr. and others were accused of assaulting and then covering up their alleged vicious beating of innocent citizens — the San Francisco Chronicle uncovered records showing that Fagan’s short history on the force was marked by regular incidents of abusive behavior, the kind of records that should have served as a warning for the problems to come.

"We decided to take a look to see how common it was. And we spent a lot of time doing that," Steve Cook, the Chronicle editor of what became last year’s five-part "Use of Force" series, told the Guardian. The team used the Sunshine Ordinance to gather boxloads of records on use-of-force incidents, which it organized into a database that was then supplemented and cross-referenced with a wide variety of other public records, along with old-fashioned shoe leather reporting, all the while fighting through bureaucratic denials and delays.

Despite an embarrassing mislabeled photo on the first day of the series that served as fodder for attacks by the Police Department and Mayor’s Office, the series made clear that rogue cops were abusing their authority, totally unchecked by their supervisors. "We were proud of what we were able to show," Cook said. "We showed a department in need of some basic reforms."

The series helped spur the early intervention system that was recently approved by the Police Commission. It’s a good first step, but one criticized by the Chron and the Guardian for failing to include some key indicators used in other cities (see our editorial "Fix Early Warning for Cops," 2/28/07), something that Cook said requires ongoing vigilance by the press, to bring about needed reforms: "Only the news media is really going to accomplish this, if they stay with the story." (Steven T. Jones)

Legal counsel

DAVID GREENE


The First Amendment was never about money. Free speech is supposed to be free. But these days threats to the First Amendment are growing, more and more people who lack the resources of a major media outlet are in need of help — and there aren’t many places dedicated to offering that assistance, free.

That’s where David Greene and the First Amendment Project come in.

Since 1999, as a staff attorney and executive director, Greene has helped dozens of freelance journalists, students, nonprofit organizations, and independent media outlets protect and expand their free speech and open government rights.

The operation he runs is totally independent. That’s a key point in an era of massive media consolidation: when the Guardian sought earlier this year to find legal representation to force open the key records in a lawsuit over Dean Singleton’s local newspaper merger, we found that just about every local media law firm represented at least one of the parties to the case and thus was conflicted. The FAP was not.

Greene and the FAP have represented blogger Josh Wolf and freelancer Sarah Olson in landmark subpoena cases. Greene, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, wrote the amicus brief on behalf of noted literary artists in the California Supreme Court case In re George T., in which the court, relying heavily on the FAP brief, overturned the conviction of a juvenile who made threats to other students with a poem. And the struggle just goes on. The FAP is funded largely by private donations and always needs additional support.

"Unfortunately," Greene told us, "we have to turn away a lot more cases than we can take." (Tim Redmond)

News media

SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS


After years of last-minute backroom deals at San Jose’s City Hall, things came to a head when the City Council rubber-stamped proposals to give a $4 million subsidy to the San Jose Grand Prix, $80 million for a stadium to keep the Earthquake soccer team from leaving town, and $45 million for new City Hall furniture.

Clearly, something had to give. But it was left to San Jose Mercury News editorial writers to push for transparent and accessible government and better enforcement of the state’s open government laws.

First they shamed the city, pointing out that "San Francisco, Oakland, even Milpitas have better public-access laws." Next they hammered then-mayor Ron Gonzales for saying that calls for more open government were "a bunch of nonsense." Then they printed guiding principles for a proposed sunshine ordinance that they’d developed in conjunction with the League of Women Voters and Mercury News attorney James Chadwick.

When city council member Chuck Reed was elected mayor on a platform of open government reforms, the paper still didn’t give up. Instead, it’s continuing to champion the need to bring more sunshine to San Jose and working with a community task force on breaking new ground, such as taping closed sessions so they can one day be made available when there’s no further need for secrecy.

Somehow the Merc also managed to pull off another amazing feat: the paper built public understanding of and support for sunshine along the way. (Phelan)

SAN MATEO COUNTY TIMES


When outbreaks of the highly contagious norovirus sprang up in a number of California counties, San Mateo County was among those hit. Public health officials, however, would not release the names of the facilities where numerous individuals became infected, citing concerns about privacy and not wanting to discourage facility managers from contacting health officials.

Nonetheless, the San Mateo County Times ran a series of reports on the outbreaks in the named and unnamed facilities. After publishing reports on unnamed facilities, the news staff began to receive phone calls from residents who wanted to know the names of the facilities. Times reporter Rebekah Gordon told us it became clear that the public wanted to know this information, and the paper fought the county’s secrecy.

Gordon learned that facilities are required by law to report outbreaks, regardless of the potential for media exposure. Times attorney Duffy Carolan sought out and won the disclosure of the names of four facilities.

"The county’s initial nondisclosure decision evoked public policy and public safety concerns at a very broad level, and nondisclosure would have had a very profound effect on the public’s ability to obtain information that affects their own health and safety. By persisting in the face of secrecy, the Times was able to establish a precedent and practice that will well serve to inform their readers in the future," Carolan told us.

The paper learned the outbreak was far more widespread than the county had admitted, finding 146 cases in six facilities. Gordon said, "The numbers were so much higher than we were ever led to believe." (Julie Park)

Online free speech

JOSH WOLF


Even as he sits inside the Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin, where he’s been denied on-camera and in-person interviews, jailed freelance journalist Josh Wolf manages to get out the message. Last month Wolf, who is imprisoned for refusing to give up video outtakes of a July 2005 anarchist protest in the Mission that turned violent, earned a place in the Guinness World Records for being the journalist to have served the longest jail term in US history for resisting a subpoena.

His thoughts on the agenda behind his incarceration were read at press conferences that day, reminding everyone of the importance of a free press. Meanwhile, Wolf has managed to continue operating his blog, www.joshwolf.net, by sending letters to family, friends, and fellow journalists, including those at the Guardian.

Wolf has also managed to create two other Web sites: www.mediafreedoms.net, which supports journalists’ resistance to government pressure, and www.prisonblogs.net, which allows prisoners to air thoughts and grievances. If Wolf can do all this from behind bars, imagine what he’ll do when he finally gets out. As Wolf would say, if we could only speak to him without reserving a phone interview 48 hours in advance: "Free press? Then free Josh Wolf!" (Phelan)

Public official

JOHN SARSFIELD


As district attorney for San Benito County, John Sarsfield upset the political applecart when he tried to prosecute the County Board of Supervisors for ignoring the Brown Act’s prohibitions on private communication and consensus building among board members on matters that involved employment decisions, personnel appeals, contracting, and land use–growth control issues.

His decision didn’t sit well in a county where battles over the future of the land have spawned Los Valientes, a secret society that has targeted slow-growth advocates and anyone who gets in its way — including believers in open government. So the board retaliated by defunding Sarsfield’s office, forcing the DA to file for a temporary restraining order against the board, the county administrative officer, and the county auditor, a countermove that kept his office operating and the investigation alive — until he lost his reelection bid to the board’s chosen candidate in January 2006.

One of Los Valientes’s targets, Mandy Rose, a Sierra Club member and slow-growth advocate, recalled how people on the outside warned Sarsfield what he was up against, "but he insisted on working within the system. It was what he believed in. Someone even said he was a Boy Scout."

For his efforts, Sarsfield’s life was turned into a living hell that cost him his dogs, his marriage, and eventually his job. But now, with this award, he gets some small recognition for fighting the good fight. And he has also been appointed special assistant inspector general within the Office of the Inspector General by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Phelan)

Special citations

LANCE WILLIAMS AND MARK FAINARU-WADA, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE


Investigative reporter Lance Williams and sportswriter Mark Fainaru-Wada joined forces in 2003 to take on what became one of the biggest — and most controversial — local news stories of the past five years.

The investigation of the Burlingame-based Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, better known as BALCO, and the larger scandal of widespread steroid use among baseball players was, the San Francisco Chronicle editors decided, too big for one reporter.

In fact, it turned out to be big enough for a series of stories, a book, and a legal battle that almost sent the two writers to federal prison. The duo admits today it was mostly the fear of getting scooped that drove them through the story’s dramatic rise.

"I’m a baseball fan in recovery," Williams told the Guardian. "I used to think I knew the sport. I didn’t have a clue about this stuff. I’m not kidding you. I had no idea how much a part of baseball steroids had become … that whole sort of seamy underside of the drug culture and the game. I just didn’t know it was like that, and I think most fans don’t either."

Although prosecutors seemed to be focusing on BALCO executives, everyone following the story wanted to know what witnesses — in this case top sports stars — told a federal grand jury investigating the company. The outfit had allegedly distributed undetectable steroids and other designer drugs to some of the world’s greatest athletes, including Giants slugger Barry Bonds, who is on his way to making history with a new home run record.

In 2003 the Chronicle published lurid details of the grand jury’s investigation based on notes Williams and Fainaru-Wada had obtained from court transcripts leaked by an anonymous source. Bonds denied knowingly taking any steroids, but prosecutors waved in the air documents allegedly confirming his regular use of substances banned by Major League Baseball.

Furious prosecutors launched an investigation into the leak of secret grand jury transcripts. The reporters were called on to testify but refused — and so joined two other reporters last year threatened with jail time for resisting subpoenas. A lawyer stepped forward last month and admitted leaking the documents, but Williams and Fainaru-Wada came dangerously close to landing in the same East Bay lockup where blogger Josh Wolf is held for refusing to cooperate with a federal grand jury.

The rash of recent attacks on reporters by federal prosecutors has First Amendment advocates up in arms. After all, no one’s going to leak crucial information if the courts can simply bulldoze the anonymity that journalists grant whistleblowers. Fainaru-Wada and Williams have since inspired a bipartisan proposal in Congress to protect journalists at the federal level (dozens of states already have variations of a shield law in place).

"People roll their eyes when you start talking about the First Amendment," Fainaru-Wada said. "But the First Amendment is not about the press, it’s about the public."

In addition to the James Madison Freedom of Information Award, Williams and Fainaru-Wada’s coverage of the BALCO stories earned them the prestigious George Polk Award. But the story took a dark, unexpected turn last month.

Defense attorney Troy Hellerman, who represented one of the BALCO executives, pleaded guilty Feb. 15 to contempt of court and obstruction of justice charges and could serve up to two years in prison for admitting he twice allowed Fainaru-Wada to take notes from the grand jury’s sealed transcripts.

Just as he was spilling details in 2004, Hellerman demanded that a judge dismiss charges against his client, complaining that the leaks prevented a fair trial. He even blamed the leaks on prosecutors. A deputy attorney general called the moves "an especially cynical abuse of our system of justice."

Media critics lashed out at Williams and Fainaru-Wada for exploiting the leaks before and after Hellerman moved for a dismissal. Among those attacking the Chron reporters were Slate editor Jack Shafer and Tim Rutten at the LA Times, who described the conduct as "sleazy and contemptible."

Williams and Fainaru-Wada today still won’t discuss specifics about their sources, but Williams said without the leaks, names of the athletes involved would have otherwise been kept secret by the government even though the grand jury’s original BALCO investigation was complete.

"The witnesses didn’t have any expectation of privacy or secrecy of any kind," he said. "They were going to be trial witnesses. It was in that context that our reporting got under way. I am sensitive to the need of an investigative grand jury to remain secret. And I’m respectful in general of the government’s secrecy concerns. But it’s not the reporter’s job to enforce that stuff." (G.W. Schulz)

SARAH OLSON


When Oakland freelance writer and radio journalist Sarah Olson stood up to the Army by resisting a subpoena to testify in the case of Iraq war resister First Lt. Ehren Watada, she faced felony charges as well as jail time. But Olson understood that testifying against a source would turn her into an investigative tool of the federal government and chill dissent nationwide. "When the government uses a journalist as its eyes and ears, no one is going to talk to that journalist anymore," Olson told the Guardian.

She also objected to journalists being asked to participate in the prosecution of free speech. "The problem I have with verifying the accuracy of my reporting is that in this case the Army has made speech a crime," Olson said. Watada, whom Olson interviewed, has been charged with missing a troop movement and conduct unbecoming an officer, because he publicly criticized President George W. Bush and his illegal Iraq War.

In the end, Army prosecutors dropped the subpoena once Watada agreed to stipulate that Olson’s reporting was accurate. Olson, for her part, attributes the dropping of the subpoena to the support she received from media groups, including the Society for Professional Journalists. (Phelan)

Student journalist

STAFF OF THE LOWELL


The 2006 school year got off to a rough start for Lowell High School, one of the top-ranked public high schools in the country and certainly San Francisco’s finest. The school’s award-winning student newspaper the Lowell was covering it all.

After the October issue went to press, the school’s two journalism classes, which are solely responsible for writing and editing content for the monthly paper, received a visit from the school’s interim principal, Amy Hansen. Though Hansen says there was no attempt to censor the paper and the classes agree that no prior review was requested when it appeared that the students would be covering some controversial stories, the principal questioned their motivations as journalists and asked them to consider a number of complicated scenarios designed to make them second-guess their roles as reporters. The principal told the student journalists they had a moral responsibility, not to turn out the news, but to turn in their sources and information.

In separate meetings with each journalism class, Hansen questioned them about when it was appropriate to lay aside the pen and paper in the name of the law. The students maintained that as journalists they are in the position to report what happens and not pass moral judgment. Additionally, their privileged position as information gatherers would be compromised if they revealed their sources.

The lectures from Hansen did not deter the journalism classes from their basic mission to cover school news as objectively and thoroughly as possible. Even when police were called in to question Megan Dickey, who was withholding the name of a source she’d used in a story about a tire slashing, she still refused to say what she knew. (Witherell)

Whistleblower

MARK KLEIN


Mark Klein knew there was something fishy going on when his boss at AT&T told him that a representative of the National Security Agency would be coming by to talk to one of the senior technicians. Klein was a union communications tech, one of the people who keep the phone company’s vast network going every day. The NSA visitor stopped by, and before long Klein learned that AT&T’s building on Folsom Street would have a private room that none of the union techs would be allowed to enter.

Klein kept his eyes open and learned enough from company memos to conclude that the government was using AT&T’s equipment to monitor the private communications of unsuspecting and mostly undeserving citizens. When he retired in May 2004, he took a stack of material with him — and when he read in the New York Times a year and half later that the NSA had indeed been spying on people, he decided to go public.

The 62-year-old East Bay resident had never been a whistleblower. "I didn’t even know where to begin," he told us. So he surfed the Web looking for civil liberties groups and wound up contacting the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

It was a perfect match: the EFF was about to file a landmark class-action lawsuit against AT&T charging the company with collaborating with the government to spy on ordinary citizens — and Klein’s evidence was a bombshell.

"Mark Klein is a true American hero," EFF lawyer Kurt Opsahl told us. "He has bravely come forward with information critical for proving AT&T’s involvement with the government’s invasive surveillance program."

Federal Judge Vaughn Walker has kept Klein’s written testimony under seal, but the EFF is trying to get it released to the public. The suit is moving forward. (Redmond)

SPJ-NorCal’s James Madison Awards dinner is March 13 at 5:30 p.m. at Biscuits and Blues, 401 Mason, SF. Tickets are $50 for members and $70 for the general public. For more information or to see if tickets are still available, contact Matthew Hirsch at (415) 749-5451 or mhirsch@alm.com.