Freedom of Information: 2007 James Madison Award winners

Pub date March 11, 2008

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Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement Award


If journalists were the subjects of trading cards like baseball players, the Dan Noyes rookie card would be just as impressive as a 2008 career highlights card. Think Reggie Jackson: a long, impressive career, spanning multiple organizations and a propensity to come out swinging big at the end of a hard-fought battle.

Over a career spanning 30 years, Noyes has pursued serious investigations, some lasting as long as a year, into everything from questionable Liberian timber imports to illicit gun trafficking from United States suppliers to the Nuestra family gang. Journalism first interested Noyes during the crucial investigative reporting that sparked Watergate scandal in the early 1970s.

In 1977 Noyes cofounded the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), an independent news organization which produces in-depth stories and documentaries for all major news outlets. In 1979, reporting for the ABC News program 20/20, CIR broke a story on a swindling United Nations charity organization and its connections to international drug trafficking.

More recently, Noyes has done a series of print and broadcast pieces concerning gang violence in California and its effect on the lives of those surrounding the lifestyle. Noyes still holds an executive position at the CIR and continues to contribute to the world of investigative journalism.

Beverly Kees Educator Award


Cliff Mayotte sees his Advanced Acting Class at Lick-Wilmerding High School as one that merges students’ "consciousness and awareness as young adults with their skills and energies as performance artists."

The subtitle of the course is "Theatre as Civic Dialogue," and the eight students enrolled during the 2007 spring semester used all their abilities to pull off a notable show.

After an introduction to Documentary Theatre — a form he described as "oral history turned into performance" — the group selected a topic that was important to them, giving birth to the "Censorship Project."

The students interviewed their peers, teachers, and administrators to gather perspectives on the ways in which expression and opinion can be muted or altered, both voluntarily and involuntarily. They reached out to organizations such as Project Censored, the First Amendment Project, and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. They transcribed interviews and studied subjects in order to capture statements, word patterns, and mannerisms of interviewees, then shaped the themes into a 60-minute performance.

Professional Journalists


"Being a high school sports guy, I don’t get to do this very often," the Modesto Bee‘s Will DeBoard said of his first major foray into investigative reporting. He had gotten a tip that the California Interscholastic Federation was investigating recruiting violations by the football program at Franklin High School in Stockton, which competed with schools in his area. DeBoard asked the school and CIF about recruiting violations, but the football coach flatly denied the allegations and the CIF wasn’t much more helpful.

So DeBoard decided to make formal requests for public records with the help of business reporter Joanne Sbranti, and after fighting through some initial denials, he obtained hundreds of pages of investigatory documents from CIF showing how the school was recruiting players from American Samoa. "It really was a treasure trove of great stuff. We got two weeks’ worth of stories out of these documents," DeBoard said. "It really showed us that what the school was telling us just wasn’t true."

The documents detailed the recruiting scheme and gave DeBoard tons of leads for follow-up stories, including the address of "a home owned by the coach where there were all these gigantic Samoan linemen living there." DeBoard called the effort an "adrenaline rush" better than that caused by the best game he’s covered and a high point of his journalism career.


Contra Costa Times investigative reporter Thomas Peele has a long history of battling for public records access on behalf of both reporters and private citizens. Peele, who helps with projects for all the newspapers under the Bay Area News Group-East Bay ownership, helped ensure the recovery of thousands of e-mails from the Oakland mayoral tenure of Jerry Brown when he left office to become the state’s attorney general in 2006. Peele also helped conduct a statewide audit of Public Records Act compliance by law enforcement agencies with the nonprofit Californians Aware, which revealed glaring inconsistencies in how police across the state make information about their activity available to the public. And he’s been a major figure in helping the Chauncey Bailey Project pry out new information about Bailey’s murder last year and it’s connection to Your Black Muslim Bakery. He began his career in 1983 at a small weekly in Bridgehampton, N.Y., and moved from there in 1988 to the Ocean County Observer in New Jersey before joining the CCT in 2000.


KTVU-TV producer Roland De Wolk is leading the investigative team of photographer Tony Hedrick and video editor Ron Acker in a quest to get the names of drivers who regularly use FasTrak lanes but don’t pay anything. But to date, says De Volk, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has been blocking his team’s quest.

De Wolk told the Guardian that his team filed a California Public Records request when the MTC wouldn’t provide information on the amount of money it was losing thanks to drivers who don’t pay tolls when they use FasTrak lanes.

"We asked MTC for specific numbers last summer and got little information. That makes a reporter’s antennae quiver," said De Wolk.

But when he and his team asked for the numbers of people obstructing their plates, the MTC started acting squirrelly, De Wolk said.

"Finally, after six to eight weeks of asking we got an answer: a photo of a car whose plate was blank," fumed De Wolk, whose team continues to push for the names of the 10 most frequent FasTrak violators.

Broadcast News Outlet


When KGO-TV reporter Dan Noyes and producer Steve Fyffe asked Muni to turn over records of public complaints against its drivers, they were ready for some bureaucratic foot dragging. But they never expected the yearlong grudge match that followed. First, the union representing Muni drivers sued to keep the records sealed. Then Muni’s parent department, the Municipal Transportation Agency, made a backroom deal with the union and released a blizzard of confusing and heavily redacted paperwork that would have made the Pentagon blush.

"It was essentially a big document dump," Fyffe told us. "There was no way to tell one form from another or which driver was which."

Noyes and Fyffe convinced their bosses at KGO-TV to file a lawsuit for full access to the records. The station prevailed, after which Noyes and Fyffe received over 1,200 pages of public complaints about 25 drivers. Recently, the station went back to court after Muni refused to release surveillance tapes of the drivers. As in the previous case, the judge ruled that the public had a right to the materials and forced the transit agency to hand the tapes over.

Fyffe said he sees KGO’s legal successes as small victories in a much larger fight. "I hope in the future that this case will make Muni and other city departments more [responsive] to records requests … these kinds of incremental victories hopefully lead, little by little, to a more open government."

Print News Outlet


The Sacramento Bee operates in a city run by top-tier politicians and their spinmeisters, so the editors and reporters there have placed increasingly high value on using documents to support their stories.

"We’ve always used public records here. Being in a state capital, we’re a little more aware of the necessarily of that," managing editor Joyce Terhaar said. "You just need to be able to tell a story about what’s really happening."

Yet she said that in recent years, the Bee has made a concerted effort to hire public-records experts and to have them share their knowledge with the paper’s staff through regular workshops. And last year, those efforts paid off with a string of big, impactful investigative stories.

Among them was Andy Furillo’s look at how much the state was spending to fight inmate care lawsuits, Andrew McIntosh’s exposé on the lack of oversight for paramedics and emergency medical technicians, and stories by John Hill and Kevin Yamamura on misconduct by the state’s Board of Chiropractic Examiners.

In selecting the Bee, Society of Professional Journalists judges recognized these individual efforts as well as the Bee‘s "institutional support of reporters and their use of public records for numerous stories."

Community Media


One of the only ways to uncover corporate wrongdoing is to dig through court records, and it’s the job of the press to report what it discovers, said Becky O’Malley, executive editor for the Berkeley Daily Planet. She was convinced that a prior court order violated the public’s constitutional rights to see court documents, so the small daily newspaper sued and won in a California appeals court last year, making public 15,000 pages of records from a class-action suit filed against Wal-Mart in 2001.

The documents included allegations that the company had denied rest breaks to its workers and deleted hours from paychecks. In the Planet‘s freedom of information suit, the appeals court judges agreed with the paper’s attorneys that the case could set a dangerous precedent where the public would have to prove its right to access court records. "It’s becoming more of a trend for judges to grant permanent seals on court records," said O’Malley. That’s unfortunate, she added, since "the only way the public finds out about bad things going on in society is through court records."

Special Citation Award


After Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey was murdered last August, a large group of Bay Area media organizations formed a rare coalition to investigate his death and the activities of Your Black Muslim Bakery, a long-time East Bay institution believed by police to be involved in the killing. Since then, the group has produced several stories complete with audio, video, and photo presentations, the most recent of which is a series by retired Santa Rosa Press-Democrat reporter Mary Fricker detailing the sexual assault allegations made by young women once in the custody of Yusuf Bey Sr., founder of the bakery. Fricker received help from independent radio journalist Bob Butler, investigative reporter A.C. Thompson, and MediaNews staff writers Cecily Burt, Thomas Peele and Josh Richman. Other stories have reported allegations of real estate fraud against bakery associates, explored potential coconspirators in Bailey’s death, and examined the bakery’s ties to several prominent politicians. More about the project — the first of its kind since a group of journalists investigated the murder of Don Bolles more than 30 years ago in Arizona — can be found at, or at

Public Official


It was a staff member, Kathryn Dresslar, who told Assemblymember Mark Leno how horrible state agencies had become at complying with the California Public Records Act. Dresslar served on the board of Californians Aware, a group that advocates for open government, and she described to her boss how a 1986 audit by the organization had given every one of the 33 agencies in California government a failing grade.

Ryan McKee, then a high-school student and the son of CalAware board president Rich McKee, had visited each agency and asked for a few simple things. He wanted to see each agency’s guidelines for public access, and he requested some basic information, including the salary of the agency director. Agency after agency refused to follow the law.

So Leno introduced legislation that would have mandated that every agency post its access guidelines on the Web — and included stiff fines for agencies that violated the Public Records Act. "It put some teeth into the law," Leno told us. "And I got 120 of 120 members of the state Legislature to vote for it.

That wasn’t enough for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who vetoed the bill, saying it wasn’t needed. The governor insisted that he had already ordered state agencies to fix the problem.

"It was a great eye-opener for me, and showed me the resistance this administration has to allowing public access to state government," Leno said. "Without that access the public is at a great disadvantage."



It might be hard to believe, but in 1949 the University of California Regents, a bastion of higher education, rode the wave of anticommunist fervor and McCarthyism, forcing all UC employees to take a loyalty oath. The Board of Regents adopted the rule that UC administrators pushed forth: denounce communism and swear loyalty to the state, or face losing your job.

As could be expected, people resisted and 31 faculty, workers, and student employees lost their jobs. They appealed the case to the California Supreme Court and eventually were reinstated in 1952, but the controversy cast a pall over the UC’s reputation and divided campuses. With the help of a grant from UC President Emeritus David Gardner, archivists from UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library and other researchers painstakingly compiled 3500 pages of text, many audio statements, and photos from four UC collections.

The online collection, which went live in December 2007, serves as primary source material for students and researchers who want to understand how UC administrators got embroiled in and came to terms with the McCarthy-era tensions that rocked the country.

Legal Counsel


Electronic data is the new frontier for public-records law, and Rachel Matteo-Boehm, a lawyer with Holme, Roberts and Owen, last year won a key case preserving the public’s right to access to what some public agencies have tried to claim was proprietary data.

The county of Santa Clara produced a digital map showing property lines, assessors parcels and other key real-estate data, and that became the basis for a geographic information system tool. The GIS would allow users to plot everything from property taxes to street repairs, public investment, political party registration, school test scores and other trends. But Santa Clara wasn’t giving it out to the public: The database cost more than $100,000, which meant only big businesses could use it.

Boehm went to court on behalf of the California First Amendment Coalition to argue that the data was public, and must be made available without high charges. "As information begins to be collected in electronic form, and governments choose to put information in sophisticated electronic formats, you can run into real public-access problems," Boehn told us.

Boehm convinced a Santa Clara Superior Court judge that the data was indeed covered under the California Public Records Act. Now Santa Clara must make the map available to the public — and other counties with similar data, seeing the results of the suit, are following that rule.

The decision was a key one, Boehm said: "One day we’re going to wake up and all there will be is electronic records," she noted. And if governments can apply different rules to those documents, "you can kiss the Public Records Act goodbye."



When Dan Cooke shared details of an alleged sewage spill on Alcatraz Island with the Guardian, the health of the national park — where he’d been working as an historical interpreter for over a decade — was foremost on his mind. But he lost his job after the story was published — apparently for taking a proactive role in noting details of the spill in the island’s log book and speaking candidly to the press about what he’d seen. Wanting nothing more than a return to his job leading educational tours of the island, he filed an administrative claim with the US Department of Labor against the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy and the National Park Service. And he called the Guardian. We reported his firing. The next time Cooke called, it was to happily report he was back on the job.



SuperBOLD has accomplished something entirely different from what it set out to do. Originally, the small group of devoted Berkeley public library users organized to oppose the installation of RFID tags in books. "In the process of going to library board of trustees meetings, we discovered they were vioutf8g the Brown Act," said Gene Bernardi, who heads SuperBOLD’s steering committee with Jane Welford, Jim Fisher, and Peter Warfield. They found, among other things, that certain documents were only made available to trustees and a lottery system was employed in selecting speakers during public comment. They took their complaints to the Berkeley city attorney and joined up with the First Amendment Project, which threatened a lawsuit. Things have changed, though it’s still not perfect — city council meetings only allow 10 speakers and the library trustees still play the lottery for public comment, but marginal improvements portend better days.

"Now you can speak more than once," said Bernardi. "Now you can speak on consent calendar and agenda items. So there are more opportunities to speak … if the Mayor [Tom Bates] remembers to call public comment."

Electronic Access


For years, web pioneer Carl Malamud has sought ways to use the Internet to connect average citizens with their government. His new Web site helps that cause by excavating buried public domain information and posting it online. Though still in its early stages, the site already allows users to tap into hard-to-find records from places like the Smithsonian, Congress, and the federal courts system.

Even though most government records are part of the public domain, fishing them out from the bureaucratic depths can be a daunting and expensive task, even for someone like Malamud. During a lecture at UC Berkeley last year, he related his recent difficulties in acquiring a simple database from the Library of Congress. Instead of turning over the materials, officials at the Library cited dubious copyright protections and presented Malamud with a bill for over $85,000 — all for access to supposedly public information.

Thanks to Malamud’s Web site, that database and millions of other documents are now available with the click of a mouse. Ultimately, Malamud hopes will help bring about an age of "Internet governance," in which every last byte of public data winds up online for all to see, free of charge.


MARCH 18, 2008
No-host bar @ 5:30 p.m.
Dinner/Awards @ 6:30 p.m.

$50 SPJ members & students
$70 General public
For more information, contact David Greene (