SPJ NorCal To Honor Sunshine, First Amendment Champions

The Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter (SPJ NorCal), will honor champions of open government and the First Amendment at the organization’s 28th annual James Madison Awards banquet on Tuesday, March 12.

(Get tickets for the banquet at Eventbrite: https://jmawards13.eventbrite.com.)

Independent reporter Seth Rosenfeld receives this year’s Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement Award for his freedom of information victories against the FBI, Department of Justice and other agencies, culminating in the publication last year of his book “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power.”

Rosenfeld heads a list of 12 reporters, individuals, and news and nonprofit organizations receiving an award this year.

The awards are named for the creative force behind the First Amendment and honor local journalists, organizations, public officials and private citizens who have fought for public access to government meetings and records and promoted freedom of expression and the public’s right to know.

The Yoffie award is named for one of the founders of SPJ NorCal’s Freedom of Information Committee. As an editor and publisher of the then-family-owned Marin Independent Journal, Yoffie was a vigorous advocate for transparency and accountability in the public services sector.

Banquet Details:

The 28th annual James Madison Awards banquet will be held Tuesday, March 12, at the New Delhi Restaurant, 160 Ellis Street, San Francisco, between Mason and Powell streets.

A no-host reception at 5:30 p.m. will be followed at 6:30 p.m. by the dinner and awards ceremony. Tickets are $50 for SPJmembers and students, and $70 for other attendees. Tickets may be purchased online via Event Brite. Tables and hosting opportunities are available – please contact spjnorcalfoi@gmail.com for more information.

Here is a brief listing of the winners and their awards. Complete descriptions follow.

Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement Award – Seth Rosenfeld

for his long record of distinguished achievement taking on the FBI, DOJ and other federal agencies.

Beverly Kees Educator Award – Ed Remitz

for more than two decades of taking on administrators of the College of San Mateo as advisor to the campus newspaper, the San Matean.

Distinguished Service Award – Bruce B. Brugmann

for half a century of service to the freedom of information cause in San Francisco and California.

Legal Counsel – Judith Alexander

for her 26 years of leadership as an attorney, educator and organizational leader in defense of reporters and news organizations fighting FOI and defamation cases.

Professional Journalist - Three awards:

Malaika Fraley and Matthias Gafni (Contra Costa Times) for groundbreaking stories that led to changes in how East Bay school districts handle sex abuse allegations.

Jennifer Gollan and Shane Shifflett (Center for Investigative Reporting) for revealing conflicts of interests in the federal judiciary in California as well as excessive fees for public access to court records.

Ali Winston, freelance journalist, for amassing an impressive body of work uncovering abuses and misconduct in the Oakland Police Department.

News Media - Three awards:

The Associated Press, Sacramento Bureau, for its yearlong investigation of vote- switching in the state Assembly.

The Sacramento Bee, for uncovering $54 million in secret assets in the state parks system.

The Press Democrat, in Santa Rosa, for uncovering the reasons behind massive county pension increases and compelling candidates to take a stand before an election.

Public Official – California Fair Political Practices Commission for demanding and winning pre-election disclosure of an anonymous $11 million campaign contribution.

Citizen – Dean Metzger for leading the fight to enact the Berkeley Sunshine Ordinance.

Organization – Berkeley Copwatch for effective use of public records to block a Homeland Security grant for putting an armored military vehicle on the streets of Albany and Berkeley.

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NORWIN S. YOFFIE CAREER ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Seth Rosenfeld

Freelance journalist Seth Rosenfeld picked his first FOIA fight with the FBI in the early 1980s, while a student reporter at UC Berkeley’s Daily Californian. Over the next three decades, Rosenfeld doggedly pursued records regarding the FBI’s activities on the Berkeley campus during the Free Speech Movement. Rosenfeld became so expert at fighting the FBI for records that the federal judges overseeing his cases would often speak with him directly and a government attorney actually called him “an experienced litigator” in court.

Rosenfeld’s tenacity is reflected in his groundbreaking book, “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power.” All together, the FBI spent more than $1 million trying to block the release of the secret files on which “Subversives” is based, but Rosenfeld compelled the bureau to release more than 250,000 pages, providing an extraordinary view of what the government was up to during a turning point in our nation’s history.

Prior to writing “Subversives,” Rosenfeld spent many years as an investigative reporter at The San Francisco Examiner and The San Francisco Chronicle. He is the recipient of two previous James Madison Awards, the George Polk Award, and other honors, including numerous national awards for “The Campus Files,” which revealed unlawful cold war FBI activities at the University of California.

BEVERLY KEES EDUCATOR AWARD

Ed Remitz

Ed Remitz taught journalism at the College of San Mateo and served as the advisor to the San Matean for over 23 years before retiring last fall. Over that time, the San Matean earned a reputation for challenging the college administration and for its aggressive use of public records laws.

These practices led to numerous conflicts with the college administration. Most recently, starting in 2011, Remitz’s students drew the administration’s ire while investigating the use of Faculty Service Areas, which were established as a precursor to faculty terminations. This past fall the administration canceled four of Remitz’s classes because of “low enrollment.” The canceled classes included those responsible for production of the newspaper and its website, effectively shutting down the San Matean and leading to Remitz’s retirement.

DISTINGUISHED SERVICE

Bruce B. Brugmann

There has been no more vigorous sunshine advocate in San Francisco, perhaps all of California, than Bruce B. Brugmann, co-founder and (until recently) editor and publisher of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, San Francisco’s first alternative news weekly. He and his wife, Jean Dibble, launched the Guardian in 1966, and finally stepped aside only in 2012 — after 46 years. And yet, even now he remains active with the Guardian through his “Bruce Blog.”

Brugmann chaired SPJ NorCal’s FOI Committee from its founding in 1986 until he became chapter president in 1993. He persuaded then-chapter president Bill Kong to form the FOI Committee to support a legal fight to keep meetings of the Marin General Hospital board of directors public — a battle led by Marin Independent Journal publisher Norwin Yoffie (namesake of the award) and his wife, Sandra.

In 1993 he worked with Supervisor Kevin Shelley to enact San Francisco’s original Sunshine Ordinance, which established an 11-member task force to monitor compliance with the ordinance and state FOI laws. Brugmann served on the task force for its first 10 years. In 1999, Brugmann and the Bay Guardian helped lead a successful charge to reform the ordinance (Proposition G), which passed by a 58-42 margin despite vociferous opposition from Mayor Willie Brown, a solid majority of the Board of Supervisors, the city’s chamber of commerce, the Democratic and Republican county central committees, and other groups and political operatives.

LEGAL COUNSEL

Judith Alexander

For more than 26 years, Judith Alexander has been a leader in the Bay Area media law bar. She has represented news publishers and independent journalists in numerous freedom-of-information and defamation lawsuits, including the San Jose Mercury News, Los Angeles Times, The Sacramento Bee, Monterey County Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, Santa Cruz Sentinel, The Press Democrat and The New York Times, as well as many broadcasters.

Alexander served as Special Access Litigation Counsel for the First Amendment Coalition from 2010 to 2012, and has served on the Board of Directors of the Center for Investigative Reporting since 1996, including a term as its president from 2000 to 2004.  She has taught media law both at Santa Clara University School of Law and in the Journalism Department at San Jose State University.

PROFESSIONAL JOURNALIST

Malaika Fraley and Matthias Gafni

Contra Costa Times reporters Malaika Fraley and Matthias Gafni used court documents, school district records and personal interviews to tell the story of a survivor of long-term sexual abuse; their work led to changes in how East Bay school districts handle sex abuse allegations.

It started with an interview of a rape survivor who wanted to share her story and happened to mention to the reporters that she knew of another sex-abuse cover-up involving a different teacher at Joaquin Moraga Intermediate School. Gafni and Fraley sent a public records request to the Moraga School District superintendent, but it was promptly rejected on the grounds that the personnel records were confidential.

When the district was informed that public employees’ personnel files must be released when the requested material reaches a threshold of public interest, district officials acknowledged the point and released a trove of documents. The public records revealed this teacher’s pattern of inappropriate sexual behavior and abuse.

The reporters published a two-part series detailing the survivors’ experiences and shining a spotlight on the school district’s failings. While the teacher had previously been exposed as an abuser, and the publicity eventually led to his suicide, Gafni and Fraley revealed for the first time that top school officials had known of the problem and failed to act or report it to law enforcement.

Jennifer Gollan and Shane Shifflett

Over the course of several months, Jennifer Gollan and Shane Shifflett of the Center for Investigative Reporting interviewed dozens of sources, analyzed financial disclosures, court records and judicial budgets to reveal that since 2006 federal judges in California entered more than two dozen rulings in cases involving companies in which they owned stock, a violation of federal law and the Judicial Code of Conduct. The examination revealed gaps in the court’s conflict-checking system for federal judges and suggested the possibility of more pervasive conflicts of interest in the federal judiciary in California.

Additionally, a sidebar story detailed how the federal government has collected millions of dollars in fees from the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system (PACER), nearly five times the cost of running the system. These excessive fees act as a deterrent to public access.

All of this work was accomplished in the face of resistance by the federal judiciary, which has a practice of warning judges about who is scrutinizing their disclosures, which withheld financial figures regarding PACER fees (these figures were obtained elsewhere), and which refused to grant a fee waiver for the PACER records Gollan and Shifflett sought.

Ali Winston

Though a relative newcomer, Ali Winston, a 2010 graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, has already distinguished himself as a dogged and incisive investigative reporter evocative of the best of previous generations. He receives the Professional Journalist award for amassing such an impressive body of important work so early in his career.

Over the past two years, Winston has illuminated numerous scandals concerning the Oakland Police Department as it faced the threat of federal receivership. Utilizing public records requests, court records, confidential sources and gumshoe reporting, he has documented the department’s failure to solve or even thoroughly investigate homicides; identified officers responsible for egregious uses of force at Occupy Oakland; uncovered key details of controversial officer-involved shootings; unearthed evidence of federal surveillance of peaceful protesters; detailed the complex legal and political aspects of the OPD’s oversight by the federal judiciary; and otherwise reported consistently on the department’s failure to engage in constitutional policing.

NEWS MEDIA

The Associated Press, Sacramento Bureau

The Associated Press’s Sacramento bureau launched a yearlong investigation on the practice of vote switching, which turned out to be a surprisingly common occurrence in the state Assembly. Lawmakers may change or add their votes on legislation as long as it does not alter the outcome of the bill, but the AP showed how frequently it actually occurs.

To conduct their investigation, reporters Hannah Dreier and Juliet Williams exhaustively recorded every vote change during the nine-month legislative session, then created spreadsheets to track the whopping 5,000 times that Assembly members changed their votes after the fact. The reporters tackled this in-depth project in addition to their regular reporting on the legislative session and two statewide elections. Obtaining the data presented a challenge on its own, since vote switches are scattered through the Assembly daily files; Dreier and Williams were the first to collect it all together.

The AP investigation brought to light how vote switching occurs, which lawmakers do it most often, and how it deceives voters. It led to calls for the Legislature to abolish the practice, as well as pledges by incoming freshmen lawmakers to limit their use of it.

The Sacramento Bee

The Sacramento Bee uncovered millions of dollars in “hidden assets” in the state parks system last summer as the state was preparing to close 70 of its 278 parks and cut services at the rest for lack of funding. Even as park officials last year asked Californians to donate money toward keeping their favorite parks open, they had accumulated $54 million over 12 years — twice the amount of the budget cuts.

The Bee was tipped off about secret vacation buyouts for parks employees. Longtime sources and public record requests were key to discovering the hidden assets. The stories by the Bee’s Matt Weiser, Kevin Yamamura and Jon Ortiz resulted in resignations, firings and criminal investigations, with the Attorney General’s Office concluding that state park leaders had hidden the assets deliberately. In the wake of the revelations, Governor Jerry Brown has authorized $20 million of the newfound money to go to park repairs. The Bee has continued to follow the scandal and has examined similar budget issues at other departments.

The Press Democrat

The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa conducted an in-depth data analysis that revealed why pension costs had risen 400 percent in a decade in Sonoma County. The paper sued to get county pension records in 2010, arguing that the California Public Records Act made them disclosable public records. The county appealed, but the publication ultimately gained access to the records.

With the documents finally in hand, Press Democrat reporters got to work analyzing nearly 4,000 individual pension records. A series of articles explained how county officials’ approval of higher pensions contributed to the county’s fiscal crisis. It wasn’t easy: The first batch of records was incomplete, and it took additional legal wrangling before county agencies finally disclosed more detailed records in 2012. By the end, The Press Democrat had spent $8,500 to generate detailed records illuminating the problematic pension system.

Over three months, a newsroom team including staff reporter Brett Wilkison, researchers Teresa Meikle and Janet Balicki,and Assistant Managing Editor George Manes developed an extensive set of spreadsheets and database reports. They published the reports just before county supervisor elections in May, forcing candidates to say what they would do to halt the runaway pension train.

PUBLIC OFFICIAL

California Fair Political Practices Commission

Just weeks before the November 2012 elections, an obscure Arizona nonprofit organization — Americans for Responsible Leadership (ARL) — unexpectedly contributed $11 million to the “No on 30” and “Yes on 32” statewide proposition campaigns. Acting on a complaint, the California Fair Political Practices Commission launched an audit to determine who actually donated so much money. ARL refused to comply, saying it was merely an intermediary, not the actual source of the money, and therefore exempt from disclosure under federal law.

The FPPC sued ARL, calling the anonymous $11 million “the largest contribution ever disclosed as campaign money laundering in California history.” After weeks of legal warfare that reached the California Supreme Court, ARL backed down and released the donor names the day before the elections, showing the $11 million had in fact been filtered through two other organizations. The fight dominated California election news and became a major national story.

The FPPC earns a James Madison Award because it did not merely investigate and respond with a nominal fine, or wait until safely after the elections, but went to the mat for immediate, pre-election disclosure of information that had great importance to voters and the integrity of California’s elections, and then stood its ground.

CITIZEN

Dean Metzger

Dean Metzger deserves a good deal of the credit for the fact that Berkeley has a Sunshine Ordinance. The longtime civic activist helped lead a tooth-and-nail fight for more than 10 years to increase City Hall’s transparency and accountability.

Berkeley voters last November rejected a ballot initiative (Measure U) that would have given the ordinance real teeth. But it was the success of Metzger and his fellow activists in getting the measure on the ballot that prompted Berkeley officials to enact the ordinance in February 2011.

ORGANIZATION

Berkeley Copwatch

UC Berkeley and the cities of Berkeley and Albany almost got an armored personnel carrier through a $170,000 Homeland Security grant, but university students and city resident would never have known about it until the heavily armed vehicle actually rolled into town to put down civilian protests — had it not been for Berkeley Copwatch.

The police watchdog organization uncovered the grant through a general public records act request to the Berkeley Police Department, asking about equipment it was to receive through grant funds. Copwatch alerted the media and city officials to the grant. The Berkeley and Albany communities took the news badly (and angrily) and the grant was cancelled.

Berkeley Copwatch receives a 2013 James Madison Award not just for its dedication to openness and transparency, but for using it so effectively.