As he received his award as a Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog on Thursday, Matthew DeFour tossed his suit jacket to the floor, revealing rolled up shirt sleeves. He tugged on his tie to loosen it. This, DeFour said, was how his first editor, John Russell, arrived each day at the Aurora Beacon-News in Illinois where DeFour worked right out of college.
DeFour was among more than half a dozen Wisconsin journalists and open-government advocates honored at the 10th annual Wisconsin Watchdog Awards before a crowd of 100 people at the Madison Club.
Currently the state politics editor for the Wisconsin State Journal, DeFour was honored for his dogged reporting of K-12 education, Dane County government and Wisconsin state government, breaking stories and sparking positive change on every beat he covered. He dedicated his 2020 honor to that first editor, whom he described affectionately as an “ill-tempered, foul-mouthed Irishman.”
“But he also thought deeply about society’s problems,” DeFour recalled. “John Russell became a journalist because he wanted to save the world. He said, ‘Give the people all the information you can — and that’s how you save the world.’ ”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative reporter John Diedrich was awarded the Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog prize for 2022. Because of the pandemic, no award winner was named in 2021, and no ceremonies were held in 2020 or 2021.
“The energy here tonight is exhilarating — even more so than usual, because you have persevered, through this pandemic, to show up for our first major in-person event since 2019,” Wisconsin Watch Executive Director Andy Hall said. “It is an absolute honor to join forces with all of you to fight for the people’s right to know and for our democracy.”
Diedrich was nominated by Journal Sentinel Deputy Editor Greg Borowski for his work exposing a variety of threats to average people, ranging from dangerous barrel recycling companies that expose workers and neighbors to toxic and flammable chemicals to federal agents who took advantage of a mentally challenged young man in a botched gun-buying sting operation.
Borowski recounted the story of “the day John and I didn’t get beaten up.” The two men had met in the newspaper’s lobby with the angry brother of a woman, Tiffany Tate, who was turned away from one of Wisconsin’s top stroke centers just 350 yards away from where she had suffered a stroke. Tate was transported to another hospital farther away, where she died.
Diedrich’s 2019 investigation, Turned Away, found this dangerous policy of ambulance diversion was being used across the country with sometimes deadly results. Diedrich explained the story to Tate’s brother, and patiently listened as the man poured out his grief and anger.
“And over the course of nearly an hour, he turned David Tate’s attitude and his heart around,” Borowski recalled. “And by the end, David declared, standing up, that John was an angel sent by his sister to help the world know the story of what happened, and what should be done to fix it.”
The annual award is presented jointly by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, the Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and University of Madison-Wisconsin School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Seven other recipients were honored Thursday with Opee Awards for their contributions to open government in 2022 — and two public officials were shamed for engaging in secrecy. They include:
Citizen Openness Award (“Copee”): Christine Brennan
Brennan requested records to investigate how a beloved park was targeted for redevelopment by the city of Fond du Lac. When the city asked her for $6,888 on top of the $1,000 she had already paid to locate these records, Brennan balked. Her experience helped raise public awareness of abusive location fee costs. In accepting the award, Brennan said the records made all the difference in convincing the City Council to turn against the project.
Political Openness Award (“Popee”): Winnebago County District Attorney’s Office
Deputy District Attorney Eric Sparr accepted the award for taking the unusual step of prosecuting the Town of Omro for alleged open records law violations. In accepting the award, Sparr said the action was so unusual that the Winnebago County Circuit Court wasn’t exactly sure how to handle it. The case was eventually settled out of court.
Honorable mention: Tony Evers
Wisconsin’s governor was honored for vetoing a bill that unanimously passed both houses of the Legislature to create a new legislative human resources office with built-in secrecy provisions. He also proposed in his budget to raise the threshold for when records custodians can tack on location costs from $50 to $100.
Media Openness Award (“Mopee”): Isiah Holmes, Wisconsin Examiner
Holmes and this online news outlet unearthed shocking information about Wauwatosa’s police department, which deemed Mayor Dennis McBride a “target” and maintained a watchlist of protesters listing Holmes himself for having covered the protests as a journalist. In accepting the award, Holmes said, “This moment is a reminder for all of us — both in the power of open records law and how at times forces tend to work against it.”
Open Records Scoop of the Year (“Scoopee”): The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Diedrich also shared in this honor, along with Raquel Rutledge and Daphne Chen, for Wires and Fires, which exposed how dangerous electrical wiring has for years caused fires and claimed victims in Milwaukee rental units. The series spurred city officials to seek better ways to prevent such fires.
Whistleblower of the Year: Douglas Oitzinger
An alderperson in the city of Marinette, Oitzinger stood up to his fellow council members when he filed suit in December alleging that they had improperly gone into closed session to discuss options to replace the city’s PFAS-contaminated drinking water. In accepting the award, Oitzinger said in small communities without robust watchdog institutions, ordinary citizens must take up the role. “We will only have open government and transparent government,” he said, “if we stick our necks out and demand that our laws be followed.”
No Friend of Openness (“Nopee”): Special Counsel Michael Gableman and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos
Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders awarded this ignominious honor to Gableman and Vos in absentia, saying both “smugly reject the very idea of accountability.” The two have been cited by judges for withholding and destroying records related to Gableman’s ongoing investigation into the 2020 election. Lueders tossed the award in a nearby trash can, declaring, “Wisconsin’s tradition of open government is perhaps more fragile than we thought. We need to guard it zealously and celebrate it deeply.”
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.