Oct. 18, 2019

Best of the States

APNewsBreak: Records show Montana official’s misuse of state vehicle

When the Helena Police Department cited the statute of limitations in declining to bring charges against Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton for misuse of a state-owned vehicle, Helena reporter Amy Hanson dug deeper.

After multiple public-records requests Hanson found that Secretary of State Corey Stapleton traveled tens of thousands of miles more than what had been previously reported, including many times when he had no official events on his calendar. And she found that the misuse continued until he turned in the vehicle in March, well within the statute of limitations.

For determined reporting that resulted in a textbook example of accountability journalism, Amy Hanson wins this week’s Best of the States award.

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Oct. 11, 2019

Best of the States

AP Investigation: Priests accused of abuse have access to children, dozens commit crimes

As the ranks of dioceses promising to release lists of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse began to mushroom at the beginning of this year, Philadelphia reporter Claudia Lauer and Washington-based data editor Meghan Hoyer started to strategize: How could they leverage the information on a scale never before accomplished? 

After months of systematic, dogged work, the result was “Where Are They Now,” a blockbuster investigation that found almost 1,700 priests and other clergy members living with little to no oversight, many with positions giving them access to children. Dozens have committed crimes, including sexual assault. 

The story received exceptional play online and in print, and AP Managing Editor Brian Carovillano called it, “One of the most monumental pieces of AP journalism in my memory.” 

For a stunning investigation that breaks new ground in the already impressive body of work that is “The Reckoning” series, Lauer and Hoyer win this week’s Best of the States award.

Combo

Sept. 20, 2019

Beat of the Week

(Honorable Mention)

AP: Virtually no regulation of contaminated sludge used as crop fertilizer

for an all-formats package that holds state and federal regulators accountable for doing little or nothing to address rising concerns that sewage sludge, used as cheap farm fertilizer, is contaminating food with potentially harmful chemicals. The team interviewed numerous experts and officials about PFAS, a group of chemicals used in a wide variety of household products and industrial processes. They found concern that certain of these chemicals associated with increased risk of cancer and organ damage could wind up in the food chain fertilized by contaminated sludge. But they also found that the federal government and most states had done little if anything to assess or regulate the amount of PFAS in the sludge being spread on farm fields across America.https://bit.ly/2kRjDiihttps://bit.ly/2mmYxc2https://bit.ly/2lXGo4f

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July 05, 2019

Beat of the Week

(Honorable Mention)

New Jersey fails to identify polluters; governor promises fix

for accountability journalism made possible through an open records request, reporting that New Jersey environmental regulators had failed for nearly a decade to put out a legally required annual report on water pollution that identifies the state’s worst polluters and how the state is holding them responsible. His exclusive story drew a pledge by the governor that the publication of the reports would resume, and kudos from the state’s major news outlets. https://bit.ly/2LysvUS

June 14, 2019

Best of the Week

AP investigation: Top US cardinal accused of mishandling abuse allegations against deputy

Vatican correspondent Nicole Winfield’s five-month investigation revealed the stunning allegations: A high-ranking Catholic priest had a sexual relationship with a Houston woman for more than a year, counseled her husband on their marital problems, pressed for hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from the couple and continued to hear her confession.

But the cardinal overseeing the church’s handling of sexual abuse allegations in the United States approved the priest’s transfer to a church two hours away.

The fallout from Winfield’s revelations was swift: The priest was suspended and church officials reopened their inquiry into the handling of parishioner Laura Pontikes’ accusations.

To tell the sensitive story, Winfield – and a team that included Raleigh-based national writer/video journalist Allen Breed, New York global enterprise photographer Wong Maye-E and Houston correspondent Nomaan Merchant – meticulously planned coverage in each format, including on-camera interviews with Pontikes and her husband, and photos and video of the cardinal and the accused priest.

For an investigation that cast doubt on a top church official’s handling of a case involving startling allegations of abuse, Winfield, Breed, Wong and Merchant wins AP’s Best of the Week award.

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May 17, 2019

Best of the States

AP Exclusive: Schedules reveal West Virginia governor largely absent from work

Anthony Izaguirre began hearing the chatter about West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice as soon as he started work as the AP’s statehouse correspondent in Charleston, West Virginia, in late February. Sources told him Justice – a billionaire who owns mines, farms and a swanky resort – wasn’t fully engaged and hadn’t even been in the capital, Charleston, much since taking office in 2017.

Izaguirre's initial request for the governor’s schedules was declined, but he pressed with the help of AP’s legal department, finally getting the records. Armed with those calendars and his own resourceful reporting, he cobbled together a record of the governor’s activities, confirming what many suspected: Justice appeared to have better things to do than govern.

West Virginia media pounced on the exclusive story, which also played well outside the state.

For his resolute work to obtain public records and his thorough reporting to fill out a story no one else in the state could land, Izaguirre wins this week’s Best of the States award.

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May 03, 2019

Beat of the Week

(Honorable Mention)

Back-to-back scoops reveal details of Louisiana police cases

for two accountability scoops in his native Louisiana. Mustian tapped sources to get the state police there to reveal an embarrassing security breach at the governor’s mansion – a man accused of breaking in, damaging property and then falling asleep on a couch. That APNewsBreak was published just hours after he revealed the full body-camera footage of the police-involved shooting of Juston Landry in Lake Charles. A grand jury cleared the officer of the shooting, but Landry’s attorney characterized the footage as “murder on camera.”https://bit.ly/2GQx9tvhttps://bit.ly/2LfQv0B

April 26, 2019

Beat of the Week

(Honorable Mention)

AP reveals politics of immigration policy shifts

for two stories on how the Trump administration is dealing with the surge of migrant families at the border and a claimed lack of detention space. Merchant spotted a solicitation for contractors to build tents near the U.S.-Mexico border to temporarily detain immigrant families, and he followed up with an accountability story revealing that thousands of beds for detained families are empty at a time when President Trump was calling the country “full,” and threatening to send migrants to sanctuary cities as political retribution.https://bit.ly/2GuBJxmhttps://bit.ly/2L4OQuG

April 12, 2019

Best of the States

AP analysis: Sports betting has not been the jackpot some states expected

When the Supreme Court allowed all states to offer betting on sports, some lawmakers across the country saw an opportunity: Here was a way to bolster state budgets with revenue from an activity that was already happening in the shadows. But an AP review showed that actual tax revenue has yet to match expectations in the majority of states that legalized sports gambling.

State government team reporter Geoff Mulvihill, based in New Jersey, and Rhode Island statehouse reporter Jennifer McDermott looked through monthly state revenue reports and then compared the tax revenue generated to the original estimates in the legislation that authorized sports betting. They found that in four of the six states that legalized it last year – Rhode Island, West Virginia, Mississippi and Pennsylvania – tax revenue was far below what the state had projected it would be.

The revenue story was the latest in a string of distinctive stories from reporters working the sports betting beat. Many of the stories, including the state revenue piece, have been accompanied by a data set compiled by Mulvihill that tracks every piece of legislation related to sports gambling. It is being made available to all AP customers who subscribe to our data distribution platform and has been promoted to local reporters as a way to add context to their stories.

For revealing the difference between lawmakers’ promises on tax revenue and the reality, Mulvihill and McDermott win this week’s Best of the States prize.

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March 15, 2019

Best of the Week

AP team demonstrates what a community loses when a small-town newspaper dies

What’s lost when a newspaper dies? And how do you tell the story of this slow disaster happening in front of everyone’s eyes and still make the world sit up and take notice?

For reporters Dave Bauder and David Lieb, the answer was by focusing on the residents of one small town as they explained the death of local journalism in an authentic, vivid and compelling way.

It’s a story that’s happened repeatedly across the country, with 1,400 cities or towns losing newspapers in the last 15 years. The aftermath of the loss of the Daily Guide in Waynesville, Missouri, was richly told by a multiformat team of text, video and photo journalists as the centerpiece story for “Fading Light,” the AP’s Sunshine Week package on the decline of local news.

New York-based media reporter Bauder and Lieb, a member of the state government team based in Missouri’s capitol, spent several days in Waynesville and its twin city, St. Robert, reporting the story. Denver video journalist Peter Banda and Kansas City photographer Orlin Wagner worked closely with them to shoot visuals, while Alina Hartounian, the multiformat coordinator for the U.S. beat teams, created social videos that drove readers to the story. Bauder also secured an interview with executives at the company that shuttered the Daily Guide.

The package received incredible attention and sparked discussion online. Bauder and Lieb’s text story has been viewed nearly 120,000 times with high engagement, it has landed on nearly 30 front pages, and has been cited in several influential media reports.

For masterful work shining a light on a problem that has left whole communities less informed, Bauder, Lieb, Banda, Wagner and Hartounian win AP’s Best of the Week award.

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Nov. 02, 2018

Beat of the Week

(Honorable Mention)

AP Analysis: ‘Obamacare’ shapes state spending on opioid crisis

for their Health and Science accountability data project that revealed how millions is being spent to fight the opioid crisis. The AP analysis of FOIA records found that states with expanded Medicaid under “Obamacare” spent the funding more slowly than states that didn’t expand the health insurance program because the Medicaid already covers nearly everyone who is poor and needs treatment for addiction. https://bit.ly/2yVcqRm

July 27, 2018

Best of the Week

Reporter’s direct questions to Trump, Putin command center stage in Helsinki

“Who do you believe?”

In the defining moment of the US-Russia summit in Helsinki, President Donald Trump stood side-by-side with Russia's Vladimir Putin and appeared to side with Russian denials when asked whether Moscow meddled in the 2016 election.

The crystal-clear question came from AP White House reporter Jonathan Lemire, who asked Trump to choose between Putin and his own intelligence agencies.

The exchange, and an equally bold couple of questions to Putin, was the capstone of a grueling weeklong reporting effort by Lemire and fellow White House reporter Jill Colvin as they chronicled Trump’s tumultuous travels across Europe. The two, working in cooperation with colleagues in Europe and Russia, delivered smart spot reporting and strong enterprise at every stop on the president’s jaw-dropping trip.

For their exhaustive and highly impactful work, they win Beat of the Week.

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July 27, 2018

Best of the States

Private messaging apps used for official business test open records laws

Smart phone private messaging apps are great for keeping secrets. The apps delete messages almost immediately and do not allow them to be saved, copied or captured with a screenshot.

But what about use of the apps by government officials and elected representatives? State Government Team reporter Ryan Foley spotted a trend of public officials increasingly using such apps for official business. It’s a trend that alarms advocates for open government, who say it undermines state laws designed to ensure transparency and access to records.

Foley’s research was based in large part on use of a new legislative tracking tool called the Sunshine Hub that was developed by AP Data Team members Serdar Tumgoren and Seth Rasmussen. The tool allowed Foley to see whether bills addressing the trend were being introduced in state legislatures across the country. And indeed they were.

The resulting story won play on more than two dozen front pages and prompted several editorials, including one in The Columbus Dispatch warning that officials’ use of message-vanishing apps was the same as destroying public records.

For their efforts in exposing a potentially dangerous anti-transparency trend among government officials, and developing a unique tool to track it, Foley, Tumgoren and Rasmussen win the Best of the States award.

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July 20, 2018

Best of the States

AP investigation: Pence family’s failed gas station empire cost taxpayers millions to clean up

Indianapolis correspondent Brian Slodysko’s investigative story started from one sentence buried in a news release. It said that the public was paying for environmental cleanup at a contaminated petroleum storage site in Indianapolis that Vice President Mike Pence’s family abandoned after their gas station empire went bankrupt in 2004. The release didn’t mention Pence, just Kiel Brothers.

After attending a demolition celebration, where he photographed a crew tearing down a massive tank that had long-blighted a neighborhood, Slodysko worked over the coming months to detail how extensive contamination from the business was – and quantify the public cost.

The result: Indiana taxpayers paid more than $21 million to clean up after the company, in all likelihood a conservative figure because many of the documents were redacted, missing or incomplete.

But cost alone doesn’t tell the whole story. Slodysko’s review of public records showed that the Pence family business – which was run by Mike Pence’s older brother Greg, who is now running for Congress – repeatedly received favorable treatment from the state.

The story ran, or was teased, on the front page of at least eight Indiana papers, including the Indianapolis Star, which ran the story and photo across the top. It was also featured on the website of the Columbus Republic, Mike Pence’s hometown newspaper.

For an investigation that revealed the millions of tax dollars used to clean up more than 85 contaminated sites in three states, Slodysko earns this week’s Best of the States award.

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June 14, 2018

Best of the States

Lobbyists – including House speaker’s brother – influence Florida’s payments to victims

In Florida, the Legislature has to approve court awards – beyond a capped amount – for lawsuits alleging wrongdoing by a state or local agency.

So when Florida Tallahassee reporter Gary Fineout began hearing about a surge in payouts to victims and families harmed by government actions, he began digging into public and legislative records. What he found confirmed the influence of lobbyists, and of one lobbyist in particular: the House speaker’s brother.

Fineout found that claims lobbied by the speaker’s brother had a substantial rate of success. Of the $37.5 million in claims bills approved over the past two years, nearly half was awarded to victims represented by Michael Corcoran, brother of Florida’s House speaker.

One state lawmaker, a candidate for attorney general, said the process needs fixing, and said that Florida should have a codified, egalitarian process for awarding payments, one that doesn’t rely on who has the best lobbyist.

Fineout's story received extensive play, including a rare banner headline atop A1 in the state's largest newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times. The Sun-Sentinel newspaper said in an editorial that “Florida owes thanks to Gary Fineout ... for shedding light on a dark side of Florida government.”

For work that South News Director Ravi Nessman called a “perfect example of the kind of tough, accountability reporting that we prize so much from our statehouses,” Fineout wins this week's Best of the States award.

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April 20, 2018

Best of the States

AP's 50-state analysis: State legislatures lack public records of sexual misconduct claims

As the #MeToo movement spread to state capitols, AP statehouse reporters filed uniform FOIA requests with every legislature seeking information about past sexual misconduct cases and payouts to victims. The coordinated effort, overseen by State Government Team reporter David Lieb, produced some interesting numbers: roughly 70 complaints and nearly $3 million in sexual harassment settlements over the past decade.

But the real story was the information that wasn’t released.

In fact, a majority of states would not disclose records related to sexual misconduct among lawmakers. The most common response was that they had received no such complaints over the past decade, did not keep a record of any such complaints or were not legally bound to disclose the records. But Lieb's research revealed that even states with documented cases of lawmaker sexual harassment were not releasing records about those allegations – and potentially others.

Lieb worked with data editor Meghan Hoyer to organize and analyze the responses from our statehouse reporters in every state. The resulting spreadsheet was distributed to AP bureaus and customers weeks ahead of publication to allow for localizations. AP reporters in 19 states did just that, producing sidebars that in many cases landed on A1.

The mainbar and the state-by-state list of accused lawmakers received wide interest on the APNews app. The story also landed on at least 20 front pages.

For their 50-state accountability project on a topic that continues to rattle state capitols, Lieb and Hoyer win this week’s Best of the States award.

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Feb. 02, 2018

Best of the States

AP uncovers NJ utility lobbying for a bailout, and blackout of financial records

In the weeks before New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie left office, a measure quickly advanced through the Legislature that would give PSEG, the state’s largest utility, a $300 million bailout for its nuclear power plants.

That got the curiosity of statehouse reporter Michael Catalini, who started digging.

A records request turned up more than a dozen emails showing that the company had lobbied for the bailout and wrote in a clause itself to prevent the public release of financial information proving it needed the money.

The bill introduced in the Legislature included language to shield the company’s books from the public, but failed to get to Christie’s desk during December’s lame-duck session. It re-emerged after Democrat Phil Murphy took office.

Catalini’s story revealing the lobbying effort was published a day before a committee hearing on the bill. Lawmakers rewrote the measure after the story appeared to clarify that PSEG would be required to submit “any financial information” to the state utility regulator.

For holding the utility and state lawmakers accountable, Catalani receives this week's Best of the States award.

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Oct. 06, 2017

Best of the States

AP Exclusive: Chief Texas oil regulator vacationed at the height of hurricane

Hurricane Harvey killed more than 80 people and triggered historic flooding in Houston and across large swaths of Texas. But it also sparked oil spills and gasoline shortages. Those presented major tests for the state’s Railroad Commission, which, despite its peculiar name, actually regulates the energy industry – with historically lax enforcement.

So when the commission’s executive director, Kim Corley, abruptly resigned, the timing and circumstances made Austin newsman Paul Weber curious. He began making calls and soon secured a tip: Corley had been on vacation and unreachable at the height of the Category 4 hurricane that walloped the industry she was paid $180,000 annually to safeguard.

For his exclusive on a hyper-competitive story, Weber wins this week’s Best of the States award.

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Sept. 22, 2017

Best of the States

Request denied? Sunshine Hub sheds light on state efforts to block public access

Beyond its dramatic effects, the audio from 911 calls can provide the kind of context that is essential to the public's understanding of what happened during a newsworthy crime or emergency. Those recordings are, with few exceptions, a matter of public record. That almost changed this year in Iowa, where the state House passed – unanimously – a bill that would end the public's ability to access many 911 calls. The bill eventually died after an outcry from the media, watchdog groups and civil rights organizations, but it was not unusual. A months-long project by AP reporters and data journalists found more than 150 bills introduced in state legislatures this year that were intended to eliminate or limit public access to a wide range of government records and meetings.

To help reporters find, track and provide input on those bills, Serdar Tumgoren and Seth Rasmussen of the data team created a unique online tool that provided full access to AP customers.

Called the Sunshine Hub, it helps users keep track of legislative activity related to government transparency, suggest new bills, search for and categorize bills for research purposes, and discuss legislation with others. The Sunshine Hub directly complemented stories by Ryan Foley in Iowa, Andrew DeMillo in Arkansas and Laurie Kellman in Washington.

For their groundbreaking reporting and software development, Tumgoren, Rasmussen, Foley, DeMillo and Kellman win this week's Best of the States award.

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