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SPJ announces ‘winners’ of Black Hole Award
For immediate release
Linda Petersen, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairwoman, 801-554-7513
Abby Henkel, SPJ Communications Manager, 317-927-8000 ext. 215,
INDIANAPOLIS – In honor of Sunshine Week, the Society of Professional Journalists announces the winners of its second annual Black Hole Award, which exposes the most heinous violations of the public's right to know.
The SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chose three “winners,” along with several runners-up. The “winners” include the Georgia Legislature, Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, and the Wisconsin Legislature.
“Last year, our first year, we gave the Black Hole Award to the Utah Legislature and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert,” SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chairwoman Linda Petersen said. “That was for a piece of legislation, HB477, subsequently repealed, that would have decimated GRAMA, Utah’s open records law.”
“However, this year, there were several equally ‘worthy’ contenders, so we have chosen to give three Black Hole Awards,” Petersen said.
Recipients of the 2012 Black Hole Awards are:
The Georgia Legislature’s 2008 law and 2011 amendments to that law providing tax credits for private schools
A 2008 Georgia law introducing the Qualified Education Income Tax Credit enabled taxpayers to divert over $125 million so far from the state treasury. The law allows for tax credits to support scholarships at private schools without tracking which schools or students get funding or disclosing publicly anything about how the state money is spent by private organizations. Now, after the amendments in 2011*, the law makes it a criminal offense to disclose virtually any meaningful information about the program to the public. Georgia’s law fails to hold anyone accountable for how they divert or spend tax funds. It does not track who is receiving scholarships under the program.
Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services
Last year, after an inspection by the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services, Amy Dye, 9, was killed by her adoptive brother of the family into which she had been adopted. The weekly Todd County (Ky.) Standard and community members wanted to know what this state child protection agency had done – or not done – to monitor reports of suspected abuse it received, and sought its records regarding Amy.
The cabinet stonewalled, first denying it had such records, then classifying its records as a ‘neglect’ probe rather than a ‘fatality’ probe, which under Kentucky's open records law must be made public. Subsequent lawsuits by editor-publisher Ryan Craig and others finally obtained release of some of the relevant documents, which were heavily redacted.
Over the course of several months and several court cases, the cabinet’s intransigence and failure to follow judge’s orders brought a $16,000 fine, believed to be the first against a state agency under the Open Records Act since its adoption in the mid-1970s. The newspapers were awarded $57,000 in legal fees. Toward the end of this, the secretary of the CFHS resigned.
Wisconsin State Legislature
The Wisconsin State Legislature ignored the state's open meetings law in hastily passing a collective bargaining bill in March 2011, then successfully urged the state supreme court to exempt it from this law.
Additionally, tasked with redrawing voter boundaries based on the 2010 Census, the legislature's Republican leadership hammered out new maps behind closed doors, even having their members sign secrecy agreements. The maps were unveiled less than a week before the only public hearing on the bills, which promptly passed. Afterward, the leaders fought court orders to release records showing what they had done, drawing an uncommonly sharp rebuke from a federal judge.
The Wisconsin legislature also passed a law barring even police from knowing who may be carrying concealed weapons. And while opening the state capitol to these weapons, it cracked down on the use of cameras by citizens in the state assembly.
Receiving Dishonorable Mentions are the Ohio Department of Transportation, the Ohio Turnpike Commission and the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors.
New York hospitals and Nevada candidates for federal and state offices also received nominations. Contenders for the Black Hole Award were nominated by journalists, open government advocates and ordinary citizens.
“We at SPJ look forward to the day when there will be no submissions for this award,” Petersen said. “Until then, we are happy to shine the light on groups that violate the letter and spirit of open government laws until there is no rock left for them to slither under.”
Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.