March 13, 2014

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council bestows annual ‘Opee’ Awards

You’re invited

Online registration for the WisconsinWatch.orgdog Awards reception and dinner
When: April 23, 5 p.m. reception and 6 p.m. dinner
Where: The Madison Club, Madison, Wis.
Ticket price: $55 (proceeds benefit the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism)
How to become a sponsor of the event

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, as part of national Sunshine Week (sunshineweek.org), March 16-22, recognizes extraordinary achievement in the cause of open government in this year’s Openness Awards, or Opees.

“This was a year of almost constant threats to the state’s openness laws,” said Bill Lueders, council president. “We had local law enforcement agencies suppressing drivers license information, a state senator claiming immunity from all civil suits to evade the Open Records Law, and a spate of attempts to deny public access to records of circuit court cases and university research.”

All of these threats were met with opposition, and none of these battles has yet been lost. But, Lueders said, “The year served to remind us that the price of protecting our state’s traditions of open government is eternal vigilance.”

It was also a year in which records pried into the public domain contained new revelations about how some public officials and their staff have connived to circumvent the Open Records Law.

For 2013-14, the Council is bestowing six Opees to individuals and groups. Five of the awards are positive; the No Friend of Openness Award is not. The winners are:

Political Openness Award (“Popee”): Dan Ault. Throughout the state, dozens of law enforcement agencies are withholding basic information like names and ages from accident reports, under an apparently overzealous interpretation of a federal court ruling. Ault, the police chief of Oconto in northeast Wisconsin, initially joined them, but this summer bucked the trend and began providing fuller disclosure. “It’s about doing what’s right,” he said. “It’s just common sense.” And it’s about time other officials started following his lead.

Citizen Openness Award (“Copee”): Becky Kostopolus and Marilyn Bartelt. Kostopolus, a mother in Appleton, complained to the school district about teachers who posted inappropriate comments about her son. District officials wouldn’t tell her what if any action they took in response. So Bartelt, the boy’s grandmother, requested disciplinary records for seven educators. The district, where another teacher was convicted and principal charged with felonies related to student abuse, denied this request, spurring a lawsuit brought by attorney April Barker. In February, nearly two years after the original request, a judge ordered the records released.

Media Openness Award (“Mopee”): Ellen Gabler and Allan James Vestal, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Reporter Gabler and news applications developer Vestal documented gaping disparities and delays in a common genetic test given to newborns, resulting in preventable disability and even death. The pair fought to obtain records from all 50 states, succeeding for about 30, then worked to analyze and present the data. The “Deadly Delays” series, also involving reporters Mark Johnson and John Fauber and photojournalist Kristyna Wentz-Graff, spurred congressional action and individual state reforms, and the team’s database empowers parents to make informed decisions.

Open Records Scoop of the Year (“Scoopee”): David Wahlberg, Wisconsin State Journal. This seasoned reporter undertook one of the year’s most ambitious projects: an investigation into the lax treatment by the state medical-examining board of physicians who harm or kill patients. Wahlberg culled public records and created his own database; he found 36 cases involving serious injury and 15 involving patient deaths that resulted in mere reprimands, even when doctors “were clearly at fault.” The series, “Doctor Discipline,” led to changes in practice and promises of further reform.

Whistleblower of the Year: David Salkin. This Milwaukee property owner was suspicious of the crew that rented space from him for a store called Fearless Distributing, leaving significant damage and unpaid bills. When Salkin learned they were undercover federal agents, he contacted the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The paper’s year-long investigation exposed a series of failures and rogue tactics that put the community at risk, like letting armed felons leave the store and teaching people how to saw off shotguns. It led to an investigation by the U.S. inspector general and congressional hearings.

No Friend of Openness Award (“Nopee”): Sen. Glenn Grothman. Once again, the Legislature proved a ripe source of attacks on the public’s right to know, including state Sen. Leah Vukmir’s claim of legislative immunity from the Open Records Law. But Grothman, R-West Bend, takes top honors for sponsoring a bill to end the requirement that political campaigns disclose the principal employer of major donors, and another bill to purge information from the state’s online court records system.

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is a nonpartisan group that seeks to protect public access to meetings and records. Its sponsoring organizations include the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, Wisconsin Associated Press, Wisconsin News Photographers and the Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

This is the eighth consecutive year that the Council has presented Opee Awards.

The winners are invited to receive their awards at the fourth annual WisconsinWatch.orgdog Awards reception and dinner in Madison on April 23. The event is presented jointly by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and the Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Editor’s note: Bill Lueders is the elected president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and director of WCIJ’s Money and Politics Project.