Oct. 05, 2018

Best of the States

Oklahoma Republicans targeted by GOP colleague, dark money

Oklahomans widely assumed that 12 Republican state lawmakers who lost their bids for re-election came up short at the polls because of their opposition to raising pay for the state’s public school teachers.

While opposition to education funding may have been one factor in incumbent losses in the GOP primaries, Oklahoma City-based reporter Sean Murphy began hearing scuttlebutt about an organized effort from within the Republican Party to kick out incumbents from their own party.

Using campaign finance reports and solid sourcing at the Capitol, Murphy was alone in showing that the rumors were true.

Public records showed a top state House GOP leader had given money to opponents of two of his own colleagues, and the opponents unseated the incumbents. Murphy also leveraged a relationship developed over years of reporting to get the lawmaker to talk. He acknowledged a plan to punish fellow Republicans for taking hardline stances that forced a compromise with Democrats on a plan to raise taxes to pay for teacher raises.

For combining shoe-leather reporting with smart document work, Murphy wins this week’s Best of the States award.

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Aug. 31, 2018

Best of the Week — First Winner

AP Exclusives: National Enquirer’s secret safe, Cohen subpoenaed on Trump Foundation

“What’s in the safe?”

The headline on the cover of the New York Post editions on Aug. 23 spoke volumes about the impact, power and reach of AP reporting on the legal chaos surrounding President Donald Trump.

Washington investigative reporter Jeff Horwitz exclusively reported that the National Enquirer kept a safe containing documents on hush money payments and other damaging stories it killed as part of its cozy relationship with Trump leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Horwitz's story quickly went to No. 1 on AP Mobile and led websites around the world.

It was one of two AP exclusives touching on Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen that seized the nation’s attention last week. In addition to Horwitz, Albany statehouse reporter David Klepper was first to report that New York state investigators subpoenaed Cohen as part of their probe into the Trump Foundation. Klepper reported that Cohen is a potentially significant source for state investigators looking into whether Trump or his charity broke state law or lied about their tax liability.

For their exclusives, Horwitz and Klepper win the Beat of the Week.

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May 31, 2018

Best of the Week — First Winner

Mind-blowing exclusive: Security troops on US nuclear base took LSD

After five years exposing the struggles of the U.S. Air Force’s nuclear missile corps – security lapses, leadership and training failures, morale problems – Bob Burns uncovered an exclusive that was mind-blowing in every sense of the word: Airmen guarding a base in Wyoming had bought, distributed and used LSD.

Burns, a Washington-based national security writer, knew from his previous reporting on the missile corps that illegal drug use was a recurring problem and that the Air Force was reluctant to discuss it.

When the court martial proceedings began in 2016 he started filing FOIA requests for the transcripts and supporting legal documents. It took the Air Force well over a year to finish responding to Burns’ requests, but by January 2018 he had the bulk of the records he needed to piece together the story, including trial transcripts and related documents, with descriptions of drug experiences of airmen, ranging from panic to euphoria.

For his extraordinary revelation that some of the nation’s most deadly weapons were in the hands of hallucinating airmen, Burns takes this week's Beat of the Week award.

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May 24, 2018

Best of the States

AP Exclusive: Interview with judge facing recall over Stanford sex assault sentence

When a California judge chose the most lenient sentence for a Stanford swimmer convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman on campus, the outrage made national headlines for weeks. Anger at the judge turned into a recall effort on the June 5 primary ballot and more widespread media coverage.

Despite the glare, Judge Aaron Persky has been mostly silent for nearly two years. San Francisco reporter Paul Elias has spent nearly that entire time asking for an interview, over and over.

Those efforts paid off with an exclusive, three-hour all formats interview at the judge’s home. The judge said he had no regrets, even though the sentence may cost him his judgeship. The resulting story was featured prominently in local and national media.

For his persistence in getting AP a fascinating interview on a competitive story, Elias wins this week's Best of the States award.

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May 17, 2018

Best of the Week — First Winner

Russian hackers posed as Islamic State to harass US military wives

The threat over her phone to Army wife Angela Ricketts was terrifying. “Dear Angela!” it said. “Bloody Valentine’s Day!”

“We know everything about you, your husband and your children,” it continued, claiming that Islamic State militants had penetrated her computer. “We’re much closer than you can even imagine.”

More than three years after Ricketts and four other military wives received this and other alarming messages, AP London-based cybersecurity reporter Raphael Satter unraveled the secret behind it all. Satter drew on a massive hit list of Russian hacking targets, focusing on a group of five women whose names were clustered together on the list. All reported having received death threats from a mysterious group calling itself CyberCaliphate back in 2015.

The threats were not from Middle Eastern terrorists at all, but hackers from the Russian group widely dubbed Fancy Bear – the same gang who later broke into the Democratic Party’s emails and interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

For revealing the latest wrinkle in the Russian hacking story, Satter earns the Beat of the Week.

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Oct. 13, 2017

Best of the Week — First Winner

Exclusive visuals, reporting distinguish Vegas shooting coverage

It was just one of the many mysteries surrounding the Las Vegas concert shooting: How did the gunman, perched up on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay resort, fire off as many as 90 rounds onto thousands of concert-goers in just 10 seconds, killing 58 people and injuring hundreds?

Reporters Sadie Gurman and Mike Balsamo found the answer. Through sourcework, they learned that Stephen Paddock was able to carry out his assault in moments because he had used two “bump stocks,” devices that allow a semi-automatic rifle to repeatedly fire like a machine gun.

The scoop was part of an impressive week of coverage by staff in the Las Vegas bureau and across the AP that also included photographer John Locher’s dramatic images of police screaming for people to take cover as the gunman sprayed the crowd with bullets.

For their work in bringing critical details and images of the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, Gurman, Balsamo and Locher win this week’s Beat of the Week prize.

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April 20, 2018

Best of the Week — First Winner

Exclusive AP photo of missiles streaking over Damascus dominates global play

When President Donald Trump tweeted a warning last week about a possible missile strike on Syria, the AP was well ahead in its planning for what would eventually follow.

An AP cross-format team had applied for visas for Damascus a month ago. Last-minute negotiations and a bit of luck led to them being issued two days before air strikes by the U.S., France and Britain..

And when the missiles started raining down, Hassan Ammar, a Beirut-based photographer, captured the signature image of the Damascus night sky. His photo, which dominated world play, earns the Beat of the Week.

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March 22, 2018

Best of the States

Sex assaults among children on US military bases routinely ignored

Last May, as Reese Dunklin and Justin Pritchard sifted through readers' email responses to AP's 2017 investigation into schoolhouse sex assault, both reporters flagged the same messages for follow-up: The tips described problems with the handling of sex assaults reported on U.S. military bases among the children and teens of service members.

Through dozens of FOIA requests and interviews, they found that reports of sexual assaults and rapes among military kids were getting lost in a dead zone of justice, with neither victim nor offender receiving help. Cases often died on the desks of prosecutors, even when an attacker confessed. And criminal investigators shelved other cases, despite requirements they be pursued, the reporters found.

Using government records and data released by the Pentagon’s military branches and school system, Dunklin and Pritchard catalogued nearly 600 cases of sex assaults among children on military bases, often after protracted FOIA negotiations. Though an acknowledged undercount, it was the first such quantification – something neither the Pentagon nor its global school system had previously done.

For shedding light on a problem too long ignored, and localizing it for AP members in their states, Dunklin and Pritchard share this week’s Best of the States award.

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Feb. 09, 2018

Best of the Week — First Winner

AP reporting on Rohingya exodus leads to evidence of mass graves in Myanmar

"It was a mixed-up jumble of corpses piled on top of each other."

That was how a Rohingya Muslim survivor described the horrific scene of a mass grave in the Myanmar village of Gu Dar Pyin. Faces of the victims appeared mutilated, possibly with acid. The survivor said he recognized his friends only by the colors of their shorts.

AP Seoul bureau chief Foster Klug, along with photographer Manish Swarup and videojournalist Rishabh Jain, both of New Delhi, were able to find evidence of five previously unreported mass graves in the village. With interviews, video they secured from someone who had been on the scene after the killings and satellite imagery, the reporting pointed to a systematic slaughter of Rohingya Muslim civilians by the military, with help from Buddhist neighbors.

For their exclusive package that detailed previously uncovered evidence of an atrocity, Klug, Swarup and Jain share Beat of the Week.

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Jan. 05, 2018

Best of the Week — First Winner

AP NewsBreak: US soldier fought to the end after ambush in Niger

The horror tales from Niger – as reported by some of the world’s most reputable media – were gruesome: Sgt. La David Johnson, one of four Americans who died on a mysterious U.S. Army Special Forces mission in early October, had been captured alive, tortured, killed execution-style at close range and his remains had been mutilated.

The details were all erroneous, it turned out.

It took the AP’s Pentagon reporter Lita Baldor to set the record straight with a stunning scoop on an otherwise quiet Washington Sunday in December, revealing the findings of a still confidential Pentagon report.

For an unmatched story that revealed the heroism of an American soldier who died in the line of duty, Baldor wins this week’s Beat of the Week.

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Dec. 21, 2017

Best of the Week — First Winner

AP: Rohingya women methodically raped by Myanmar armed forces

When AP Australia correspondent Kristen Gelineau, Singapore photographer Maye-E Wong and New Delhi video journalist Rishabh Jain entered the sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh that are sheltering Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, they did not need to coax the women they found to talk.

Accounts of cruelty, violence and rape at the hands of Myanmar armed forces poured out of the survivors.

After only one week in the camps, Gelineau had interviewed 27 women and girls to gather evidence that Myanmar’s armed forces had carried out a pattern of sweeping, systematic rape across Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Joined by Wong and Jain during her second week in the camps, the team revisited several of the women Gelineau had interviewed to capture haunting photos and video. Gelineau and Wong then interviewed two more rape survivors, bringing to 29 the number of women struggling to survive in squalid conditions who were desperate to tell the world what had happened to them. The images of their tear-filled eyes, peering out over brightly colored headscarves, conveyed a depth of suffering almost impossible to describe.

For their searing account in words, photos and video, Gelineau, Wong and Jain have earned the Beat of the Week.

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Nov. 10, 2017

Best of the Week — First Winner

Inside story: How Russia hacked the Democrats’ emails and Putin’s foes

“Hi,” the email from Google began, before turning more ominous. “Someone just used your password to try to sign in to your Google Account.” Change your password immediately, it urged, by clicking here. But the email wasn’t actually from Google, and it wasn’t sent randomly. It was from hackers connected to Russia who were targeting Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

What eventually emerged from the successful hack – thousands of embarrassing emails from campaign chairman John Podesta and others – was widely reported in the summer and fall of 2016. But the anatomy of how that hack occurred had never been revealed, until now. That investigative story, by Raphael Satter, Justin Myers, Jeff Donn and Chad Day, and a companion piece about wider Russian efforts targeting an array of Kremlin opponents, is this week’s Beat of the Week.

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Nov. 03, 2017

Best of the States

Georgia election server wiped clean – days after lawsuit against officials

Georgia's centralized and aging election system has been the subject of several controversies – most recently in June, when a whistleblower revealed that state contractors had failed to secure an important election server. Hackers could potentially have affected the results of both 2016 races and a special congressional election last June that drew national attention.

The Houston bureau’s Frank Bajak wrote up the initial news of Georgia’s server problem. But that didn't answer the larger question of whether the vulnerable server had actually been hacked, so Bajak developed new sources and kept pressing for more information.

His efforts paid off when a source provided him with an email disclosing that the troubled server had been wiped clean of all data. Even more interesting, this destruction of evidence happened just a few days after a lawsuit was filed seeking a forensic examination of the server in an effort invalidate the state's vulnerable election technology.

For his enterprise and dogged pursuit of the story behind the story, Bajak wins this week’s Best of the States award.

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Oct. 27, 2017

Best of the Week — First Winner

Raqqa drone video reveals shocking devastation

The scene is dreamlike – or, more precisely, nightmarish. The untethered camera swoops and swerves through a depopulated wasteland of rubble and bombed-out buildings and wrecked vehicles.

This is Raqqa, devastated capital of the Islamic State group’s self-proclaimed caliphate. And this extraordinary footage – the Beat of the Week – was brought to viewers around the world by freelance drone videographer Gabriel Chaim. He shares the prize with Mideast photo editor Maya Alleruzzo.

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