July 26, 2019

Best of the States

When worlds collide: FOIA reveals ousted Iowa official’s fixation with Tupac Shakur

When Gov. Kim Reynolds abruptly fired Jerry Foxhoven, the head of the Iowa Department of Human Services, she refused to say why.

But within days of the firing, Iowa City correspondent Ryan J. Foley got a startling tip: The ouster may have been due to Foxhoven’s over-the-top fondness for the late Tupac Shakur. A Freedom of Information Act request yielded 350 pages of official emails referencing the hip-hop artist, and on the day before Foxhoven was asked to resign he had sent a mass email to all 4,300 DHS employees telling them to commemorate Shakur’s birthday.

Foley’s story caused a nearly instant sensation in Iowa and among national outlets that credited the AP for the scoop while giving their own spin on the story.

For investigating a tip rather than laughing it off, and then writing a story that managed the rare feat of connecting state government to a 1990s rap icon, Foley wins this week’s Best of the States award.

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March 22, 2019

Best of the States

Sunshine Week investigation: Public regularly denied access to police videos

Police videos of officers shooting unarmed black men have sparked angry protests in Chicago, Sacramento and other U.S. cities. But AP’s Ryan Foley wondered: Is it the norm for departments to release footage from body-worn and dashboard cameras?

Foley, based in Iowa City, Iowa, a member of AP’s state government team, investigated and found that many departments routinely deny public access to their videos of officer-involved shootings and other uses of force.

Foley filed open records requests related to roughly 20 recent use-of-force incidents in a dozen states. His letters were met with denial after denial as police departments routinely cited a broad exemption to state open records laws: They claimed that releasing the video would undermine an ongoing investigation. But critics say the exemption is often misapplied to keep embarrassing or compromising video footage from public view.

To tell the story visually, Central Region video journalist Noreen Nasir dug through AP’s archives to highlight the moments and emotions that followed the deaths of unarmed black men, including the fatal police shooting of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. She also interviewed a woman in North Dakota whose brother died after being shot in the back of the head during a struggle with police, adding a crucial perspective to the video.

At the same time, Panagiotis Mouzakis, multimedia animation producer in London, used the many denial letters Foley had collected to create a video graphic that was incorporated into Nasir’s video, and Beat Team visuals editor Alina Hartounian developed a social plan that helped the package find a huge audience.

For shining a light on how police departments continue to withhold visual evidence and for devising creative ways to illustrate the story, Foley, Nassir and Mouzakis share this week’s Best of the States award.

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March 08, 2019

Beat of the Week

(Honorable Mention)

APNewsBreak: Threat of pre-election lawsuit led to big Iowa payout

for breaking news on the unusual circumstances around $4.15 million in settlements for alleged victims of sexual harrassment by a former close ally of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. From a comprehensive records request and interviews, Foley learned that a lawyer for the women had sent a detailed “demand letter” threatening a lawsuit days before the election and a promise to dig into the governor’s association with the now-fired director of the Iowa Finance Authority. The state, Foley reported, agreed to settle immediately after receiving the letter. https://bit.ly/2EoXmxR

Nov. 09, 2018

Best of the States

APNewsBreak: Iowa diocese covered up priest’s abuse of 50 boys

A source called Iowa City correspondent Ryan J. Foley with a tip: He had a shocking letter that he couldn’t share in which the Catholic Diocese of Sioux City, Iowa, acknowledged a priest admitted to abuse of 50 boys in Iowa over 20 years.

Foley eventually tracked down a copy of the letter, and it was stunning: The diocese admitted the Rev. Jerome Coyle reported his pedophilia in 1986 but was simply shuffled to New Mexico for treatment. The diocese also offered to pay Coyle to stay in New Mexico, warning that his desired return to Iowa would retraumatize his victims, now grown men.

Yet sources said he returned to Fort Dodge, Iowa, which is where Foley and photographer Charlie Neibergall found him. The priest wouldn’t talk, but the diocese confirmed Foley’s story and acknowledged two victims had come forward in recent weeks with allegations against Coyle that would now be turned over to police. The 32-year coverup was over.

Reaction to Foley’s story – the lead story in newspapers across the state – was quick, with Coyle removed from the home, the Iowa attorney general’s office launching an inquiry, and the diocese promising to identify all priests who have faced credible allegations.

The diocese said it was taking this action due to the continuing investigations of “the AP reporter.”

For breaking a story in vivid detail that had been kept hidden for decades, Foley wins this week’s Best of the States award.

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Aug. 31, 2018

Best of the States

Tibbetts murder suspect lived, worked on land linked to GOP fundraiser

Within hours of the news that the man charged with killing Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts was a Mexican citizen believed to be in the United States illegally, Republican leaders from President Donald Trump to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds injected the case into the political debate, blaming lax immigration policies for allowing the man into the community.

Amid such comments, Iowa City correspondent Ryan J. Foley got a tip from two longtime Republican Party sources: The suspect lived on land partly owned by Nicole Schlinger, one of the party’s most prolific national fundraisers, the sources said.

Foley was determined to discover whether that was true. He obtained property records showing Schlinger and her husband owned the farm trailer where Rivera had lived, and her husband was president of the farm. Foley then got confirmation from Schlinger, who had avoided his questions for days.

Further, Schlinger’s fundraising client list included anti-illegal-immigration hard-liners, including Reynolds, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and even the Stop Sanctuary Cities PAC.

The story was used extensively by Iowa newspapers and was a big online hit, with hundreds of postings and 40,000 Facebook interactions.

For scooping local and national competitors on a high-interest topic even as he reported on spot developments, Ryan Foley wins this week’s Best of the States award.

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May 04, 2018

Best of the States

FOIA reveal: Governor shields ally and agency in alleged harassment case

When Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds abruptly fired a longtime friend and political ally last month, she said it was due to “credible” sexual harassment allegations. But her staff said no other information would be available about the behavior of Iowa Finance Authority Director Dave Jamison.

Statehouse reporter Barbara Rodriguez and Iowa City correspondent Ryan J. Foley knew there was more to the story, but after filing FOIA requests, the governor's office told them there were no such records, prompting a rare case where reporting the denial would be newsworthy: that there was no evidence, correspondence or investigation into the allegations before Jamison was terminated.

Hours after that story moved, the governor’s office acknowledged they had made a mistake. There was a written detailed complaint against Jamison, but the office insisted it was exempt from FOIA.

Rodriguez and Foley didn’t stop there. They appealed the denial, leading the governor’s office to reverse course again and release the document, which immediately caused a firestorm.

It showed that Jamison had allegedly been harassing female subordinates for years, and that senior officials in the agency were aware of his behavior but apparently didn’t report it – which led to calls for an independent investigation. The governor initially rejected those calls but as pressure built, she announced she had hired a prominent outside lawyer to conduct such an investigation.

For aggressive reporting that shed light on accusations of sexual misconduct by a public official – including the lack of transparency surrounding the charges – the pair shares this week's Best of the States award.

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March 30, 2018

Best of the States

Multi-format team dominates coverage of Austin serial bombing

Three previous bombings had put Austin on edge for weeks, triggering a manhunt involving 500-plus federal agents and prompting residents to flood 911 operators with calls about suspicious-looking packages. Reporters soon inundated Texas’ capital.

When emergency personnel reported another explosion late on a Sunday night, Austin correspondent Will Weissert quickly called sources and reported that the blast was a bomb. Newsman Paul J. Weber rushed to the scene and soon confirmed the same bomber had struck a fourth time.

In the days that followed, Weber and Houston video journalist John Mone drove continuous coverage across all formats as another bomb exploded inside a FedEx processing center, and Weber broke the news that authorities were predicting an imminent arrest. As authorities closed in, the suspected bomber blew himself up around 2 a.m. the following day. A coordinated effort by Weissert, Weber and Mone, joined by Austin newsman Jim Vertuno, San Antonio photographer Eric Gay, Fort Worth correspondent Emily Schmall and Iowa City's Ryan J. Foley continued to break news and dominate play.

Throughout the week, AP also produced nuanced, multi-platform reporting on how police track cell phones, shipping facilities screen packages and how the bombings shook Austin’s chill attitude.

For their tireless and aggressive efforts to break news by mining sources, searching records and knocking on countless doors, journalists Will Weissert, Jim Vertuno, Paul Weber, Eric Gay, John L. Mone, Emily Schmall and Ryan Foley share this week’s Best of the States.

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March 09, 2018

Best of the States

APNewsBreak: Phone tip leads to shady company linked to border wall contract

The short Associated Press story out of San Diego about the first border wall contract awarded under the Trump administration made only a brief mention of the Omaha, Nebraska, company that had won the contract. But that prompted a woman to call the AP. She made several claims to Chicago-based Central Desk editor Jeff McMurray without offering proof, but he figured it was interesting enough to pass along. Omaha breaking news staffer Margery Beck was asked to check into the company.

As Beck examined state business records and court documents, she discovered that the company, SWF Constructors, operated at the same address as another business that had been sued a dozen times, including at least three times by the federal government, for failing to pay subcontractors on government projects. That company, Coastal Environmental Group, was also the subject of an Interior Department audit questioning $2 million in billing for a Superstorm Sandy cleanup contract.

For aggressive records-based reporting that resulted in a timely story no one else had, Beck receives 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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Aug. 04, 2017

Best of the States

​ONLY ON AP: Tractor-trailer trafficking survivor says people cried for air, begged for water

Houston newsman Frank Bajak headed to San Antonio with an overriding goal: Get an interview with a survivor of the immigrant-smuggling nightmare that claimed the lives of 10 people in the suffocating heat of a nearly sealed tractor-trailer.

The challenge was daunting. Survivors had been distributed among seven hospitals in the pre-dawn hours on the Sunday they were discovered in the truck outside a Walmart, with immigration and border patrol guards standing vigil outside their rooms.

Bajak's persistent, resourceful and ultimately successful effort to a secure that exclusive interview is recognized with this week's Best of the States prize.

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June 15, 2017

Best of the States

Only on AP: Countless inland bridges being raised to prepare for climate change floods

Des Moines News Editor Scott McFetridge was out on his daily run one morning when he discovered that a pedestrian bridge he often crossed was blocked off for reconstruction. He was mystified. Why did a fancy bridge that had been rehabilitated only recently need another overhaul?

The answer put him onto a fascinating story.

This Iowa bridge, and countless others far from the coasts, had to be raised because higher river levels expected from more rain caused by climate change might inundate them. New bridges and old bridges, major multi-lane spans and small rural ones, were in danger. And in not a few cases, this was happening in states where many in government question the validity of climate change.

For discovering something that was in plain sight but no one had noticed, McFetridge wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

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