50 states, 50 public records stories
Each month in this column, I try to feature journalists who are telling important stories using public records. For my final column of 2015, I wanted to do something big and decided to find public records stories from all 50 states (plus, a bonus: Washington, D.C.).
This is not meant to be a “best of” list. It’s simply a collection of public records stories from the past year that intrigued me. I found many of the stories by searching the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s website, as well as Investigative Reporters & Editors.
I also got some ideas from fellow journalists who wrote to me on Twitter @RecordsGeek. If you have a story you want to share, I’d love to hear about it and may feature it in an upcoming column.
In the meantime, check out my list of public records stories from around the country and see what records journalists are requesting. It’s full of great story ideas:
Auburn spent more than $1.6 million on its Outback Bowl trip, according to the Institutional Bowl Expense report summary submitted to the NCAA and released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The public radio station filed suit against the City of Kodiak to get records from police after three officers handcuffed and pepper-sprayed a man with autism.
(Arizona Capitol Times)
The newspaper requested electronic messages sent among top state elected officials of both parties and their top staff. But getting access to those messages was difficult.
After the state treasurer’s office instituted a policy requiring employees to delete all emails after 30 days, critics questioned whether it was necessary and whether it was consistent with the spirit of open government.
(The Desert Sun)
After a bridge collapsed on Interstate 10, the newspaper reviewed Federal Highway Administration data and found that the bridge had been given an “A” rating and one of the highest possible flood safety ratings.
University of Colorado students accused administrators of dragging their feet on an open records request the students filed to get letters, emails and documents related to the Republican presidential debate held on campus.
The Courant requested copies of documents seized from Adam Lanza’s house during the investigation into the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Police declined to release the records, but the state’s Freedom of Information Commission unanimously ruled in the paper’s favor.
(The News Journal)
Delaware’s governor blocked an attempt by a lawmaker and open government advocate to publicize the "secret" email address he used to conduct public business. The governor’s office also denied a request from The News Journal for three years' worth of his emails.
(Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune)
The newspapers spent more than a year investigating Florida’s largest state mental hospitals and collected thousands of pages of incident reports, health and safety inspections and investigative files.
(The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
After the AJC requested records, Northside Hospital argued that its activities are private and not the public’s business.
(KHON 2 News)
KHON requested school violence statistics from the Department of Education and looked at the numbers for every middle and high school across Hawaii.
From January to October, the University of Idaho received 57 public records requests. Ten of the requests resulted in fees, ranging from $64 to nearly $90,000.
The newspaper analyzed 783 economic development agreements and found that Illinois' flagship job program awarded millions of dollars to companies that never hired an additional employee.
(The Indianapolis Star)
Stand-up comedian Gabriel Iglesias ranked as the highest-paid concert performer at this year’s Indiana State Fair, according to public documents.
(The Des Moines Register)
An investigation revealed that hundreds of pages were initially redacted or missing from bid documents of private companies competing to run Iowa's $4.2 billion Medicaid program.
(KWCH 12 Eyewitness News)
After Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback denied a public records request for his daily calendar, saying it wasn’t necessary to share with the public, the TV station requested governors’ calendars from all 50 states and found that most released them.
The Kentucky Attorney General's Office ruled that Jefferson County Public Schools violated the state's open records law by blacking out too many details from records about how the school district handled a complaint involving a former employee.
WBRZ’s Investigative Unit found that the Department of Education was willing to spend whatever it cost to prevent people from getting public information. Over the past five years, the agency settled multiple lawsuits for records they refuse to turn over.
(Portland Press Herald)
The former chief of staff for the Maine Army National Guard violated several military code and federal employment regulations, including using his rank and title to accept paid speaking engagements, according to a report obtained by the Portland Press Herald.
(The Baltimore Sun)
After reporters and parents questioned Towson University about a phone that was discovered recording swim team members in a pool locker room, campus officials focused on limiting the flow of information, according to emails reviewed by The Baltimore Sun.
(The Boston Globe)
Many records related to criminal charges are exempt from the Massachusetts public records law. The Globe challenged several law enforcement departments’ refusal to release records of wrongdoing in their own departments.
(Lansing State Journal)
Emails between a county chief information officer and several vendors showed a pattern of offers that allowed the CIO and family members to attend Detroit Tigers, Lions and Red Wings games at no charge.
The Star-Tribune obtained records from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for all deaths related to crop farming and livestock production from 1992 to 2013. The paper also examined other records, including thousands of death certificates and sheriffs’ investigative documents.
An email obtained by The Clarion-Ledger showed the Mississippi Department of Education denied a public records request even though it apparently knew its reasons weren't valid.
(The Kansas City Star)
The newspaper analyzed data of police pursuit-related crashes in the metro area. The crashes killed at least 23 people, and hundreds more were injured, including at least 11 police officers.
(The Billings Gazette)
The newspaper obtained nearly 1,200 pages of documents, which were initially withheld from the public, that show cash was taken from the city’s recycling program and spent on coffee, food, kitchen supplies and personal items. City officials estimate more than $12,000 was misused.
The newspaper reports that a judge may have to decide whether Nebraska’s public records law can be used to shine light on the internal workings of the judicial branch.
(Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Review-Journal reports that Nevada taxpayers don't know much about individuals on state boards and commissions, many of whom are not required to file financial disclosure statements.
(New Hampshire Union Leader)
News organizations, including the New Hampshire Union Leader, sought the release of body camera videos, which showed police shooting and killing a man who allegedly charged at them.
A court ruled that Warren County must release records detailing how publicly owned generators were taken from the county jail and used for personal use during Superstorm Sandy. However, the court ruled that names of the accused and witnesses should be redacted.
After the head of finance at Albuquerque Public Schools was placed on leave for nearly two months, his lawyers requested cellphone records between the superintendent and other education officials.
A police officer escorted a Newsday reporter out of Oyster Bay Town offices after the reporter requested meeting minutes from the town's zoning board of appeals.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System, one of three school districts in North Carolina to maintain its own law enforcement agency, initially refused WBTV’s request for police reports.
(Grand Forks Herald)
After the University of North Dakota president announced that the school had to pick a new nickname, the newspaper reviewed his emails and reported on the backlash and support he received.
The Blade requested records from the University of Toledo and found that $194,218 in public and private money was spent to furnish and equip a new home for the school’s president and her successors.
(Oklahoma Watch and The Oklahoman)
Oklahoma’s drug overdose death count set a new record in 2014. Statistics show 864 people died from overdoses in 2014, up from 821 in 2013.
Contractors reported removing asbestos in only 33 percent of the homes demolished in Portland from 2011 to 2014, according to an analysis of city and state data. That means about 350 Portland homes were likely torn down with asbestos inside, a violation of state rules.
Emails obtained by the Tribune-Review showed state liquor officials tried to hinder the release of information to a reporter, even though they admitted the information was a matter of public record.
The Rhode Island Trucking Association filed a public records request for information about the governor's controversial $1.1 billion truck-toll plan for financing bridge repairs.
(The Post and Courier)
Using law enforcement records and never-before released dashboard videos, The Post and Courier uncovered case after case where agents with the State Law Enforcement Division failed to answer key questions about what happened in officer-involved shootings.
The state’s highest court was considering whether criminal defendants should be allowed to see the disciplinary records of law enforcement officers who arrested them.
A resident filed a lawsuit challenging the school board’s policy requiring a citizen wanting to inspect a public document to submit the request in person or via U.S. mail rather than email.
A KXAN investigation discovered troopers across the state were inaccurately reporting the race of minority drivers as white. The TV station uncovered the discrepancies while reviewing traffic citation records.
A physics professor who said he was curious about local political spending won his Utah Supreme Court bid to open records from a former civic group, ordering the release of bank statements and other financial documents from the now-defunct nonprofit organized by a former mayor.
(Burlington Free Press)
Public records showed a Vermont liquor control commissioner had a private, unwritten deal with his director of enforcement to guarantee 10 hours of overtime every week without requiring any documentation.
The paper obtained emails showing the governor’s office instructed ABC officers not to release public records.
(The Seattle Times)
The newspaper reported on the Center for Open Policing, which has sued the city of Seattle, the State Patrol and the Tacoma Police Department over access to public records.
West Virginia Department of Education officials failed to answer questions about who signed off on controversial modifications to proposed standards on teaching climate change. The department also delayed several times in providing records to the newspaper.
(Wisconsin State Journal)
Gov. Scott Walker’s office received more than 400 emails from Wisconsinites after the introduction of a proposal — which Walker and GOP lawmakers later abandoned — to gut Wisconsin’s open records law.
A Natrona County commissioner accused the commission’s chairman and vice chairman of withholding information and making decisions outside of regular sessions. He filed a public records request for their emails.
D.C. Department of Health reports, obtained by the News 4 I-Team, show the number of dog bite incidents in the city has jumped more than 100 percent since 2007.