Chapter’s Freedom of Information Committee to host 34th annual awards dinner Thursday, March 14 at Delancey Street Town Hall in San Francisco

For immediate release:
Contact: SPJ NorCal FOI Committee at spjnorcalfoi@gmail.com


SAN FRANCISCO — The James Madison Freedom of Information Awards recognize Northern California individuals and organizations who have made significant contributions to advancing freedom of information and/or expression in the spirit of James Madison, the creative force behind the First Amendment. SPJ NorCal presents the awards near Madison’s birthday, March 16, and during National Sunshine Week.

Bay Area News Group managing editor Bert Robinson wins the Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement award. Robinson has served as an editor and reporter with the news organization since 1983. His reporting on the California Legislature led to enactment of the Open Meetings Act. A longtime advocate for open government, Robinson played a key role in the adoption of the San Jose Sunshine Ordinance, and has been involved in much of the open records litigation the Mercury News and its parent Bay Area News Group have undertaken in the years since. Robinson’s award is named in memory of Norwin Yoffie, a former publisher of the Marin Independent Journal and cofounder of SPJ NorCal’s Freedom of Information Committee.

Robinson will be honored along with other winners of this year’s James Madison Freedom of Information Awards on Thursday, March 14, at the Delancey Street Town Hall in San Francisco. Tickets for the event are $65 for SPJ members, $85 for non-members and $50 for students. Tickets can be purchased via Eventbrite. Table and bar sponsorships are also available. The evening will feature silent auctions for wine, books and other items. The Delancey Street Town Hall is at 600 The Embarcadero. Festivities will begin at 6 p.m. with a no-host reception. Contact the Freedom of Information Committee for more information: spjnorcalfoi@gmail.com.

In addition to Robinson, this year’s honorees are:

The Center for Investigative Reporting and The Tribune of San Luis Obispo in the News Organization category. CIR has consistently raised the bar for the aggressive pursuit of public information. CIR brought 15 public records lawsuits last year alone, highlighted by the organization’s reporting on the lack of diversity in work forces at Silicon Valley’s biggest companies. In response to a lawsuit by CIR, U.S. Labor Department officials reversed their longtime policy and released diversity data for government contractors such as Oracle, Palantir and Pandora. CIR’s persistent efforts are particularly notable in an area where other news organizations have tried to shine light but were denied.

The Tribune used public records to shed light on reports of sexual harassment and bullying by a high school girls’ wrestling coach. The Tribune pushed back against the coach’s school district’s initial failure to disclose records, and eventually filed a lawsuit. In response to The Tribune’s requests, the district disclosed records that show how it responded to the allegations, including a paid settlement with the coach that contained an agreement to provide only dates of employment, position held and salary information if contacted by future potential employers, as well as an internal investigation report.

Nina Martin and Chris Roberts in the Journalist category. Martin, a Berkeley-based reporter at ProPublica, reported a series of stories that investigated why the United States has the highest rate of women dying in childbirth in the developed world. Faced with the challenges of medical privacy laws and incomplete government data, Martin and her collaborators collected their own, gathering testimonies of American families who had lost, or nearly lost, a mother to childbirth. In the wake of the resulting reporting, Congress voted to appropriate $60 million for states to investigate the problem. Six states also passed legislation last year to improve data collection about maternal deaths and near-deaths.

Roberts, a freelance reporter, doggedly pursued public records to reveal fraud by a contractor hired by the U.S. Navy to clean the heavily polluted former shipyard at Bayview-Hunters Point. He obtained documents that showed cleanup records were falsified. When city government did not immediately release records from its internal meetings regarding the falsified testing to Roberts, he got San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, the city’s open-government watchdog commission, to hold officials accountable. Roberts’ stories, first published by Curbed SF, reverberated throughout local and national media. Major retesting of the site was done, and recently the U.S. Department of Justice sued Tetra Tech — the company at the center of the scandal — under the False Claims Act.

Elbert “Bert” Bowers in the Whistleblower category. A former radiation safety officer for Tetra Tech’s decontamination project at the Bayview-Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, Bowers provided credible internal information about Tetra Tech’s flawed practices to regulatory agencies and media organizations. He has tirelessly represented the concerns of seven fellow whistleblowers, who together showed how corporate greed, fears of termination and lapses in government oversight threatened public health. As a result of their efforts, radiation cleanup procedures were revised at a site where San Francisco’s largest new housing development is set to take off.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner in the Public Official category. Skinner (D-Berkeley) championed a new state law that gives the people of California their first look in decades into the previously-shrouded world of police misconduct, discipline and use-of-deadly-force investigations. Skinner weathered coordinated opposition from police unions and statewide groups to see her bill, SB 1421, through to Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature in September. The bill heralds a new era of transparency, freedom of information and accountability for law enforcement.

Nikki Moore and Jim Ewert in the Legal Counsel category, for their critical role in shepherding SB 1421 through the state Legislature. By tirelessly lobbying for the bill for the California News Publishers Association, Moore and Ewert accomplished what news media and government transparency advocates had tried to do for decades. The effects are already becoming public. Since the law took effect on Jan. 1, records released by the City of Burlingame about an officer’s sexual exploitation of a woman he arrested led the San Mateo County district attorney to reopen a criminal inquiry in the case.

Michael Toren in the Student Journalist category. A reporter with City College of San Francisco’s The Guardsman newspaper, Toren successfully fought to access public records that exposed a bitter behind-the-scenes tussle over funding for a program that offers free tuition to thousands of students. Campus administrators initially refused to comply with Toren’s public records request for documents detailing the dispute. Toren ultimately prevailed after working with the California News Publishers Association. Shortly after Toren published his findings, funding for the program was restored, with commitments from college leadership to improve data collection and avoid endangering the program again.

Mickey Huff, who wins the Beverly Kees Educator Award. Huff’s role as an educator goes well beyond the campus setting. He is director of Project Censored, a program based at Sonoma State University in which student and professional researchers around the country annually produce “Censored,” detailing major stories that have received little if any attention from mainstream news media. Huff also co-hosts The Project Censored show, a nationally syndicated public affairs program on KPFA Pacifica Radio, with former Project Censored director Peter Philips. The Beverly Kees Educator Award is named for the distinguished San Francisco State University journalism professor, journalist and former SPJ NorCal president, who died in 2004.

Sue Vaughan in the Citizen category. Vaughan relentlessly uses the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance to hold government accountable. In recent years, Vaughan, who is a teacher by day, has challenged the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s regulations around privately owned commuter shuttles utilized by tech giants such as Google and Facebook. Last year, records obtained by Vaughan showed that San Francisco transit officials had allowed companies to use “red carpet” bus-only lanes meant for public Muni buses to breeze through traffic. The revelation spurred a City Hall hearing and an effort by Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer to bar the practice, arguing that only public buses accessible to all should gain priority access.

The Sierra Club in the Nonprofit category. The Sierra Club used the Freedom of Information Act to bring to light unethical behavior and excessive spending by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. The EPA at first did not respond to the Sierra Club’s FOIA requests, so the Sierra Club sued. Then, over the course of several months, the EPA disclosed thousands of pages of information that detailed stories of excess and ethics scandals. The records also broke ground, including a story about Pruitt’s use of an EPA aide to help his wife get a job. Eventually, in the wake of discoveries by the Sierra Club and news organizations, Pruitt resigned.

Ear Hustle in the Audio Journalism category. Earlonne Woods, Antwan Williams and Nigel Poor created Ear Hustle, a podcast that explores life inside San Quentin State Prison, where Williams and, until recently, Woods, were inmates. The Ear Hustle team has furthered the public’s knowledge of life inside the prison, spotlighting the daily life of inmates to millions of listeners with humor and compassion. In November, Gov. Jerry Brown commuted Woods’ sentence, writing that he had not only matured during his 20 years in prison, but “shared meaningful stories” via the podcast. Woods is now covering his and other parolees’ reentry into civilian life. Poor, a San Quentin volunteer, and Williams, one of the show’s sound designers, continue to gather stories from inside for the show’s fourth season.

Jaxon Van Derbeken in the Broadcast Journalism category. For years, Van Derbeken has obtained public records that detail colossal failures of public infrastructure. In 2018, he broke numerous stories about the leaning, sinking Millennium Tower as well as the now-closed $2.2 billion Salesforce Transit Center. Months before testing confirmed holes punched into the transit center’s steel beams contributed to them cracking, Van Derbeken used public documents to identify the likely culprit. Communications and other memos from project managers at the transit center, which Van Derbeken pried loose, revealed that stringent safety requirements were not met by the project’s contractors.

The Fresno Bee, recipient of a special citation for Speaking Truth to Power — the “power” in this case being U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, (R-Tulare), ranking member and, in the previous Congress, chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The Bee, which for decades had endorsed Nunes in his political ascent, spoke out against the congressman for his role in publicly castigating the FBI’s investigation of President Trump’s 2016 election campaign. SPJ NorCal applauds the Bee’s reporting in the face of fierce opposition from Nunes and his allies. It’s telling that, for a congressman frequently under attack in Washington for his defense of Trump, Nunes seems most wrathful about the tough reporting by his hometown newspaper.

The Westside Observer in the Community News Media category. The publication stands out among San Francisco’s neighborhood newspapers for fostering citizen journalism based on public records disclosures that shed light on city government and promote community engagement. For the past 11 years, publishers Mitch and Alice Bull have collaborated with editor Doug Comstock and a team of reporters to inform and give voice to Westside neighborhoods. Comstock is a long-time sunshine activist who played a major role in the successful 1999 campaign to strengthen San Francisco’s government-transparency law, the Sunshine Ordinance, and subsequently served on the city’s open-government watchdog commission, the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force.

Please visit spjnorcal.org for information about past award winners. For additional information about the awards, winners, or awards dinner, please email the SPJ NorCal FOI Committee at spjnorcalfoi@gmail.com.

*Correction: An earlier version of this announcement incorrectly referred to California’s Legislative Open Records Act; Bert Robinson’s reporting led to the enactment of the state’s Open Meetings Act.