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The tools of investigative journalism

Posted by Michael Sandoval on January 26th, 2011
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Citizen journalists have come into their own in recent years, digging into the types of stories that once were the exclusive domain of traditional print and television media - keeping government and elected officials accountable. Using investigative journalist techniques, “citizen media” outlets have put sunshine laws (designed to provide “sunshine” on the most basic government operations and decision-making) into the hands of the average citizen. These open records requests often reveal startling insight into how taxpayer money is spent, how million-dollar contracts are awarded, and how legislation develops (and, often, who is behind it). Even the most basic attitudes of elected officials can be laid bare through the examination of emails.

And sometimes just asking to see documents or other records of an elected official is the story.

The Denver Post found out that by asking for a copy of former Gov. Bill Ritter’s private cellphone records that many believed he used to conduct state business with, they would be entering unsettled legal territory in the arena of open records, a transparency statute request embodied in the Colorado Open Records Act.

The paper’s case against the former governor has met with little success, and now the case moves to the state Supreme Court for review.

More important than Ritter’s cellphone records alone is the question of public records access, a theme touched upon in a recent segment of the Devil’s Advocate, a show hosted by the Independence Institute’s Jon Caldara, featuring a pair of investigative journalists - Todd Shepherd of I.I. and Chuck Plunkett of the Post - rare commodities in the days of print and TV media downsizing.

Shepherd has provided a detailed video describing the CORA process so that citizen journalists can bring transparency to their local governments.

So what public records are subject to a CORA filing, and who may issue that legally binding request?

Jon Caldara: It’s not just for reporters - anybody can go right to their city council and say, “Wait a second, you guys have some communications with this company and I want to see it.”

Chuck Plunkett: Absolutely.

JC: What is open to the open records law?

CP: Most things, until you get into sensitive information like a criminal investigation, employee data that is personal - like social security numbers and what not. But I like to approach it from the point of, it has to be public until you can show me in some way, by law, that it is not . . .

JC: I remember my days on the RTD board, an elected seat, and occasionally we’d go to executive session to talk about a personnel issue or we were being sued by somebody or we were suing somebody and we needed to talk to the lawyers, and we could do that behind closed doors. Other than that, pretty much everything else was open, every email, every contract, every . . .

CP: . . . phone logs, calendars, diaries, and records about what you are spending your money on. It’s taxpayer money, and the spirit behind the whole thing is that if someone has a question about how an agency is spending their money, they ought to be able to go and see who is getting paid. What was the difference between the two? So that that dialogue takes place, and then you have transparent government.

Plunkett noted the Post’s ongoing battle with Ritter.

However, the paper’s case for a responsive official in the state’s highest office has had an effect on Ritter’s successor, Gov. John Hickenlooper.

In an impromptu call to Shepherd on 850KOA, Hickenlooper agreed to conduct state business on his state-issued phone and avoid potentially improper usage of his private cellphone for state business. He also said he would allow his private cellphone records to be public, with a neutral ombudsman examining the documents to ensure compliance.

As both the host and guests agreed, Colorado’s political atmosphere and competitive partisan orientation has led to extensive use of the state’s open records laws to force members of the opposition’s advocacy groups or elected officials to be more aware that it isn’t just traditional media outlets that interested in what the government - at any level - is doing with taxpayer’s money. In fact, in the absence of strong investigative reporting in the last decade, advocacy groups have come to fill only part of the void, leaving enough of a gap in calling for regular government accountability that the Denver daily paper still recognizes a rather sizeable market opportunity.

With 3000+ state and local governments, quasi-governmental agencies, state departments laden with bureaucrats, and 100s of elected officials, there will be plenty of work for investigative journalists and citizen journalists alike. And as we can see, just one question may, in effect, become the story itself.

[Updated 1/27/11]

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    ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael Sandoval

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