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The FOI Advocate is a compendium of ideas, edited story excerpts and other materials from a variety of Web sites, as well as original concepts and analysis. When the information comes directly from another source, it will be attributed and a link will be provided whenever possible. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited. We will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

NFOIC Summit: Texts, Lies and Video Tape

Paul Anger, editor and publisher of the Detroit Free Press spoke of the controversy surrounding former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and how the newspaper used FOI to tell the story. The Detroit Free Press won the Pulitzer Prize in the local reporting category for its coverage of the scandal. Here are the notes from his session at the NFOIC Summit:

Background on the issue:
  • Detroit lived with this nightmare for almost a year. Public records were hidden away literally under lock and key. In the end, $14 million of public money had gone down the drain. The paper's FOI lawsuit generated as much drama as Boston Legal. And there was a human tragedy. Kilpatrick was a dynamic man, father of three and rising star. Now he's a convicted felon who spent more than three months in jail and still doesn't get what he did wrong.
  • The scandal began six years ago when Kilpatrick started having an affair with Christine Beatty, who later became his chief of staff. But he didn't just have an affair. He and Betty fired three police officers in 2003. The officers then filed a whistle-blower suit accusing Kilpatrick of retaliation because of their actions in an internal affairs investigation of the mayor's security team.
  • Four years went by before the trial started. He and Beatty lied about their affair under oath. The jury didn't buy the mayor's story and awarded each of the two officers more than $2.5 million. The mayor vowed to appeal.
  • The attorney for the police officers obtained text message records through a subpoena.
  • The mayor agreed to a secret deal to settle the lawsuit in exchange for keeping the text messages private. They were to be locked in a safety deposit box and destroyed. Then suddenly, he announced that after searching his soul he had decided to settle the case for $8.4 million.
  • The Detroit Free Press filed an FOI request for all records related to the settlement. The paper filed a second request for confidential records.
  • The newspaper sued the city for all documents that had not been made public after the settlement.
  • The city released the public agreement signed but didn't disclose the secret agreement.
  • Through anonymous sources, the newspaper obtained 14,000 text messages. The messages disclosed the affair and the pair's intention to fire Gary Brown, one of the police officers in the whistle blower case.
  • Courts began unsealing documents.
  • Kilpatrick pleaded guilty in September to two felonies. Betty pleaded guilty to two felonies in December.
  • Kilpatrick faced charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice, misconduct in office and perjury.
Lessons from the Detroit Free Press coverage:
  • The Detroit Free Press realized it was sitting on a story that could tear apart the community.
  • Once it received the messages from anonymous sources, it had to ensure they were authentic. They used dates and other data to confirm that the electronic footprint was authentic.
  • Several of the messages contained sexually explicit information the newspaper didn't publish. Anger said the newspaper knew the story wasn't about sex. It didn't want the public to miss the point of the story. The newspaper also didn't want to add to the embarrassment of the families involved. Anger said some staffers and community members felt that the paper should release all the text messages. He said the paper wanted to make sure it didn't become the story, which would have been a danger if it had posted all the messages online. As the courts released more text messages, the paper did post some of those.
  • Journalism is alive and well on the Web. Journalism isn't dying, but it might be the demise if we cut reporters to the level where no investigative reporting is being done. Anger suggests cutting back on the expense of printing and physical delivery.
  • The Free Press included streaming of live events, photo galleries and video to its Web site. The Web traffic increased over 75 percent. The site received 4 million page views the day the mayor pleaded guilty.
  • Anger is in support of a federal shield law. He said sources never would have come forward without confidentiality. However, journalists should use anonymity rarely and always verify the information.
  • Technology provides powerful tools to put public documents online. The documents, videos and live streaming allowed people to decide for themselves if they believed the mayor.
  • The Free Press staff knew it would be accused of invading privacy. It tried to bullet-proof itself by organizing a group to "prosecute" each story on the issue and how the story was presented.
  • The Free Press has spent about 10 times per month what its legal budget really is. Gannett supported the paper's efforts.
  • When Detroit set up its contract with its third-party vendor to store text messages, the mayor drafted a memo warning city employees that their messages were public documents. The city no longer has an arrangement with this third party vendor. So messages are no longer being stored in this manner.
  • Anger says the real heroes in this situation were: Wayne County Prosecutor Kim Worthy, who considered the text messages public records; judges who ruled that the records should be released and ruled in favor of open records; Herschel Fink, the newspaper's attorney; and Barbara Wall, Gannett vice president and associate general counsel.
  • The newspaper took a financial risk in this project, especially because no advertisers wanted to be anywhere near these stories.
  • Anger did write some columns about the decisions being made regarding the coverage of this issue. The Web site included Q&As and live chats with the paper's investigative editor and the two main reporters, Jim Schaefer and M.L. Elrick.
  • Kilpatrick owes the city $1 million in restitution. He's currently living in a Dallas suburb and working at Covisint, a subsidiary of Compuware. He makes $120,000 a year and can earn up to $300,000. Initially he said he could only afford to pay $6 a month toward restitution. He was ordered to repay $6,000 a month. He has been late with payments.
  • The state is investigating whether Kilpatrick illegally used political campaign funds to pay $1 million to lawyers. He maintains that he didn't break any rules in doing so.
  • Kilpatrick also sued SkyTel, the city's former communications provider, for releasing the records.
  • For all current and former coverage, go here.
  • Beatty completed her three months in jail and remains without a job.
  • The Free Press' FOI lawsuit is still active. The newspaper has asked for more text messages. Kilpatrick has vowed to run for office again, and the reporters want to ensure they get all the facts about this scandal.

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