Archive for the ‘Bulldog reporting’ Category


N.C. FOI law doesn’t care about motivation, ‘outsiders’

Many times, I’ve heard resistance from public officials to public records requests. Sometimes, they’re right, such as when a request is unreasonably voluminous. Some “Send me all…” requests need to be reined in.

But a sheriff in North Carolina recently complained in a way I’ve never heard: He objects to an “outsider” seeking public records, poking his nose in the county’s business — even though state law makes no such distinction.

Ashe County Sheriff Terry Buchanan railed during a public meeting about a reporter requesting public records while working elsewhere in the state — Charlotte, which appears to be about 110 miles south.

For everyone at the meeting, Buchanan repeatedly held up a copy of WBTV reporter Nick Ochsner‘s records request. It’s a peculiar diatribe — watch here.

In the clip, Buchanan explains: “Now, this is unprecedented, as I checked, in the county. We have never had a Charlotte reporter come up here to inquire about anything.” The sheriff denounces the request as “a political fishing expedition.”

Curiously, Buchanan says he doesn’t mind releasing records from his government cellphone. Instead, he harps on letting “an outside reporter come in from Charlotte” to get public records while Ashe County is busy with important projects and coping with a political divide. “We don’t have time for this,” he declares, continuing to grip and hold up the records request.

Buchanan says the public records request “thwarts my efforts and thwarts my job” of keeping the community safe.

The rant gets weirder when the sheriff turns to tell “our local guys, our local media” what he wants them do to — ask for even more information than WBTV requested, involving other officials. He urges them to be more concerned with the fact that a county commissioner also is a deputy sheriff with arrest powers and with the settlement of a court case.

Buchanan urges local reporters, local residents and county officials to question the Charlotte reporter about “who brought this to his attention.”

“Why would we have an outsider come into our county, put us on state and national news,” Buchanan says. “Why? Why would we do such a thing? It’s beyond me. If we love this county, and we want to keep the county out of the national news, we should stay right here in the county.”

Clearly, there’s a back story that I don’t know, but none of that matters when someone asks for public records.

“These types of things should not be allowed,” Buchanan says about the records request. “They should not interfere with county business.”

Another county official correctly reminds the sheriff that the law allows anyone to request public information, which many people do, even from other states.

The sheriff’s screed is a wild overreach of authority and shows a disregard for the purpose and intent of public records laws.

North Carolina’s public records law (which looks much better than the loophole-ridden law here in Maryland) permits nothing anywhere near what Buchanan is calling for — closing borders on public information to “outsiders,” questioning motivation.

Here is a guide posted by the University of North Carolina’s School of Government:

“G.S. 132-6 accords the rights of inspection and copying to “any person,” and there is no reason to think that the quoted words are limiting in any way. The rights extend both to natural persons and to corporations and other artificial persons (such as associations, partnerships, and cooperatives). And they extend both to citizens of the government holding the record and to noncitizens. Furthermore, as a general rule a person’s intended use of the records is irrelevant to the right of access, and the records custodian may not deny access simply because of the intended use.”
 ***
The sheriff may complain and be as unhappy as he wants, but it’s irrelevant and beyond the scope of his duties. It doesn’t matter if he likes the law — it’s still the law.
But the sheriff is free to ignore my opinion, too. I’m another “outsider.”

The teeth sink in, and don’t let go

I’ve worked with and gotten to know Amy Cherry a little through SPJ. She’s the president of the Delaware Pro chapter, and seems pleasant.

Then, I caught this July 29 clip of her on the job, reporting for WDEL radio and my impression of her changed dramatically.

Wow. You must watch this. It’s about 5 minutes long.

Amy Cherry confronts councilman

I was riveted as I watched this confrontation. Most of all, it’s rare to see a reporter so coolly clobber an elected official (who deserved it) into submission, for so long. This was part watchdog, part bulldog.

I enjoy reading when the Poynter Institute interviews journalists to dissect their accomplishments, so I asked Amy if she would do something similar by email. Here’s the story behind the story, including an FOI component that is impressive and important, too.

 

What did this councilman do? This confrontation appears to be about whether he returned to Delaware for a special meeting from Maryland, as he claimed, or from Florida, as you discovered. What was the significance either way?

Councilman At-Large Mike Brown lied about his whereabouts when I asked whether he would be present for a special veto override vote that would cut funding for eight vacant positions in the Wilmington Fire Department. Brown told me, of course, he would be present for the vote since it was his original bill and that he was out-of-state in neighboring Maryland. Brown was actually in Florida when he told me that and when I asked him again whether he was in Florida at all this past week, he lied and said, “No.” This lie is significant because Brown was trying to cover up that the City of Wilmington paid $1,000 for him to fly first class on U.S. Airways from Orlando to Philadelphia to return for the veto override vote.

 

How did you find out the truth? What did you do to find and question him when he came back for the meeting? Talk about the chase.

I found out the truth by digging to obtain Brown’s flight ticket, which since the city paid for it, it’s a public document. Because time was of the essence and FOIA would take weeks, I used my contacts to get that flight receipt in my hand to prove Brown was lying and that the city paid $1,000 for him to return for a vote that would cut the Fire Department’s budget. Instead of meeting him at the airport, I decided to camp outside his home, thinking it was logical for Brown to return home from the airport since he had several hours in between his flight and the override vote.

After waiting about an hour, a black Lexus pulled up, and Mike Brown began to get out of the car. I got out of my car with my microphone in my hand and my photog and Brown quickly jumped back in the car and his driver took off. I jumped back in my car with my photog, and we quickly raced after him. Brown’s driver led us on a chase through city streets around the block. Though traffic laws were largely obeyed, it was clear he was trying to lose me. After about five minutes, we ended up back in front of his home, where I confronted him.

 

You aggressively confronted him about what he said and did, not willing to let him off the hook. Were you surprised he confessed so quickly? Or did you know you could get him to talk?

I wasn’t sure Brown would talk, especially after trying to lose me in a chase. The man knew he had been caught, and at first, after he responded “no comment,” I thought to myself, ‘OK this is going to end here,’ but I still have the proof and some video, so the story can stand. But I was surprised he continued to talk not only admitting to the lie, but admitting to it several times and digging his grave deeper. He went so far as to say another city councilman was the driver who led us on the chase. What was even more surprising was when he told me to get off his property (note: my photog stayed on the street the ENTIRE time), that Brown then called me back to talk more.

One of my favorite moments of the video is where he said, “I didn’t do anything wrong wrong.” Traveling first class on the city’s dime may not have been illegal or against policy in these circumstances, but you did lie, and you did spend a lot of city money to come back to cut another department’s budget.

 

This is a great example of a reporter controlling an interview and staying poised. Did that come natural for you?

Staying poised did come naturally for me. I’ve undergone professional vocal training and performed in several plays in high school, so I’ve always been comfortable in front of an audience and interviewing others. But it helped that I was running off adrenaline, especially after the car chase. I knew I had the proof and that he had been caught. It angered me that someone in a position of trust would lie to me, especially if like he said, “he knew I was going to find out anyway.” It angered me that he would try to run from it. Don’t lie to a reporter, you will get caught.

Also, I must add, I was grateful to have a photog (a rarity in the radio business – I probably have a photog twice a year!) so that I could focus on questioning him and really listen to his responses. The whole confrontation took about 5-6 minutes, but it felt a lot longer.

 

What reaction have you gotten to this piece?

The story and video were among the highest viewed in WDEL history. The video/story received a mention on Romenesko and was aired on the NBC10 Philadelphia 11 p.m. news that night.

Since the story aired, I have received so many phone calls and emails from Delaware politicians and citizens, congratulating me for an investigative job well done and hoping they never get on my “bad side.”
But the best part was walking into the City Council chambers ahead of the veto override vote to a round of applause from city fireman and women. I got so many “thank you’s” and hugs, including from the Wilmington Fire Chief. After the veto override failed, I got more hugs, with many truly believing my story caused the veto override to fail and some councilmen/women to change their minds, saving the Wilmington Fire Department from being cut. I hear the new word around town is, “Don’t lie to Amy Cherry.”

Connect

Twitter Facebook Google Plus RSS Instagram Pinterest Pinterest LinkedIn


© Society of Professional Journalists. All rights reserved. Legal

Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center, 3909 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46208
317/927-8000 | Fax: 317/920-4789 | Contact SPJ Headquarters | Employment Opportunities | Advertise with SPJ