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Home > Publications > Quill > SDX Award Winners: Newspaper Investigative Reporting


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Sunday, July 12, 2009
SDX Award Winners: Newspaper Investigative Reporting

The Denver Post and Argus (S.D.) Leader

By Jim Poyser

Investigative Reporting (Circulation 100,000+)

WINNER: DAVID OLINGER & ERIN EMERY, THE DENVER POST

“The Battle Within”

In the last six months of his life, Staff Sgt. Mark Waltz tried 23 different prescription medications to relieve the pain of war.

He came home from his second tour of Iraq suffering from combat stress, a traumatic brain injury, or TBI, and relentless back pain. Army doctors prescribed a treatment that included 15 different painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs, plus anti-depressants, muscle relaxants and a blood-pressure medicine. The last two medications — morphine plus methadone — were prescribed on a Friday afternoon...

That weekend, Waltz went to sleep and never woke up. The coroner’s conclusion: mixed-drug intoxication.

It began with a trickle of anonymous calls bearing a similar theme: The U.S., entering its seventh year at war, was running out of able-bodied soldiers and increasingly turning to the injured for redeployment.

Those anonymous calls led to meetings between Denver Post reporters and family members of soldiers who had been redeployed to Iraq or Afghanistan despite injuries. Quietly, support groups were forming around Colorado’s Fort Carson, where stories were exchanged and reporters learned the extent of the use of wounded troops in combat zones — some of them deployed over the objections of Army doctors.

These contacts, along with extensive Freedom of Information requests, and interviews with dozens of wounded veterans and their families, resulted in the three-part series, “The Battle Within.”

Judges called the revelation of this practice “outrageous: The Army is sending soldiers with serious injuries and mental health problems back to Iraq. Olinger and Emery have put together a series all Americans would rightly feel a sense of outrage when reading. Their details, which are very well organized, written and attributed, desperately needed to be reported.”

After the Post’s initial reporting on the deployment of injured soldiers, the Army opened an investigation. Maj. Gen. Mark Graham said it became clear that some of the wounded soldiers should never have been sent back to Iraq. He instituted a new policy requiring that he personally approve any commander’s effort to overrule a doctor’s recommendation that a soldier not be deployed. Since that policy was implemented, no Fort Carson soldier has come forward to complain that they were deployed to combat over a doctor’s objections.

More online: http://tinyurl.com/6kzkc2

Investigative Reporting (Circulation Less Than 100,000)

WINNER: JONATHAN ELLIS, ARGUS LEADER

“Casino Kings”

The state of South Dakota partners with thousands of bars and restaurants that offer video gambling. The state takes in more than $100 million each year from the games. But basic information about who owns and operates these establishments is hidden from public view by state law. Indeed, South Dakota’s open record laws are consistently ranked among the worst in the country.

According to the Leader: “For the first time, a statewide list of owners, officers and shareholders of video lottery businesses is available to the public. The Argus Leader started building a database of those businesses using a hodgepodge of state and local records. The database, which took hundreds of hours to build, is based on thousands of records, including applications for alcohol licenses and business filings with the secretary of state.”

The database reveals, among other findings, that the liquor license records kept by the state can be incomplete, inaccurate and poorly organized, making it difficult to assess what information isn’t being kept secret.

According to reporter Jonathan Ellis: “The stories accomplished several things: They shed light on the shadowy world of legalized gambling in South Dakota. They explored how state and local governments profit from video lottery; and the stories highlighted how lawmakers and officials have gone out of their way to conceal details about the business.”

Judges said Ellis was “undaunted by state law that hid from the public basic information about who owns and operates the lucrative video gambling business in South Dakota. Over six months, Ellis and the staff built their own database, using the Internet and eyeballing scattered business records that by implication connected the dots. No illegality was found, but the Argus Leader investigation opened the public’s and legislature’s eyes as to which few business people are really running and profiting from in partnership with the state — and why there should be open and transparent government.”

More online:http://tinyurl.com/lm7d9q

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