Chattanooga Times Free Press photo
Reporter Judy Walton made her first open records request in 1985. The local district attorney bragged how tough he was on drug crimes as he was getting ready for re-election. Walton, then a reporter for the The Sentinel-Echo in London, Ky., sought the records of about 1,400 drug cases and found that only a small number actually got jail time. The district attorney was furious and held a news conference to slam the young reporter. He did, however, announce at that briefing that he would no longer allow plea bargains in any drug cases. Today, however, Walton would recommend journalists making their first records request to maybe “start out small,” she says with a laugh.
Walton is now a reporter and editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press in Chattanooga, Tenn. In August, the newspaper published a weeklong series on alleged financial and professional misconduct by the district attorney and the local drug task force in the state’s 10th Judicial District — the fallout of which the four counties that make up the district are still feeling today. Lawmakers looked into possible reforms. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury continue to investigate the allegations raised in the series. Just like she did back when she was a rookie, Walton relied on the records — hundreds and hundreds of them, including three years worth of government credit card statements and gas cards receipts for all the members of the drug task force. Managing editor Nicole Lozare spoke with Walton about how she used the records to get the story and what tips she has for other reporters. To read Walton’s series, go to www.timesfreepress.com/justice.
Let’s start from the beginning. Walk me through how your investigation started.
It grew out of another project, which was a much smaller project looking at issues in the police department. Someone came forward and said, “you think that’s bad, you should look at this.” Because we were dealing with the district attorney’s office, no one wanted to go on the record because they were afraid of retaliation. So the entire investigation had to be records based. The district attorney’s office is also in charge of the drug task force. This local drug task force is interesting in that it got no state funding — it operated solely on forfeitures on Interstate 75. So I started looking at the drug task force and pattern of its forfeitures and what it did with the money. Another involved allegations that the district attorney was misusing the power of his office to protect his friends and retaliate against people who opposed him.
Did you have any idea how big this was going to be when you first started?
It just grew. For instance, I asked for records on vehicles that were seized and I ended up with records on 300 vehicles. Then I looked at the pattern of spending by the agents on the task force, who each had a gas card. So I looked at three years worth of gas cards. The top five agents had a credit card and I looked at three years worth of statements. There was one instance when I looked at the civil forfeiture cases. There were cases where they seized large amounts of money but never charged anyone. One of those was a $250,000 seizure. I took a random list of names and I asked each of the courthouses to see if they charged anyone criminally. I took about 80 names and had them check through each courthouse. Some of them fell through the cracks. Some had different names. But I ended up with only 17 records (where forfeitures weren’t accompanied by charges).They seized the money. They were out there on the highway making money to support their operation. They didn’t care if they got drugs or making criminal cases. They were there to make money to support themselves. At one point they had $5 million in seizures in one year. They got very good at picking out what vehicles may be involved in drug trafficking. There were also allegations that they were racially profiling.
Did your newsroom have to budget how much it would cost?
Roughly, $1200. It was piecemeal. For example, it cost about $300 for the vehicle records. I got a lot of copies of court cases and those were 50 cents a page.
What did the records tell you?
They spent a lot of money on travel — more than a million dollars. They were traveling all over the country. One of the ledes in my stories said ‘It’s hard to know how they could be enforcing the drug laws in Tennessee because they were always traveling’ to places for training, law enforcement conferences. But closer to home, they were buying things that technically did not further the mission. They bought exercise equipment, furniture, flowers and they had a very big bill for scented candles. And then the drug task force chief was using his task force credit cards to rent motel rooms for himself and another agent — a woman agent — with whom he was having an affair. There were some other allegations as well. I basically looked at credit cards records to see how they were spending their money and that’s what turned up. A lot of hotel stays, a lot of planes, a lot of restaurant spending and these little quiet motels around the district.
How do you connect two and two? For example, with the drug task force chief using the credit card at the motel, how were you able to connect it to the female agent?
When they were using it for conferences it was pretty obvious. Places like Palm Beach or Gatlinburg. But he was spending it on little hotels right there in the district. There was no reason for him to be spending the night at a hotel in the same town that he lived. Now some of those he was renting rooms for confidential informants, and it was marked on the receipt. But there were also occasions where they used his credit card, signed the register in her name or signed it in her handwriting in his name. It was pretty obvious. It was so blatant.
We talked a little bit about the budget. You mentioned that it cost about $1,200 for the records. Was there ever resistance in your newsroom about budget and the time it was taking to get all these records?
I never got that. I started looking at the project in December 2011 and I first wanted to publish in April 2012. We decided we needed to do more investigating and we published in August 2012. And every time it was because there was some new avenue to pursue, another fact to check, another lead to follow. I never got any pressure to hurry up or get it out of the way.
How long would it take you to do the record requests?
A lot of the records I looked at were court records and things like that. I did that for many days. Tennessee has an odd public records law in that it is very broad except when it isn’t. The premise is that all records created by government should be public but then there are specific exceptions that are crafted into law and it’s difficult to know what is public and what is not. It’s almost on a case by case basis in certain areas. For instance a closed file of a local police department is public but a closed file by the Tennessee Bureau of investigation isn’t. So there’s a lot of back and forth.
Have you made any mistakes in making requests that set you back?
This is a completely different subject, but I was doing a story on a snake fancier who got bitten by a copperhead and died. There was a fellow who was a friend of his who had lot of snakes and they arrested the guy for violating Tennessee’s wildlife laws. So I went and got copies of the entire database of Tennessee residents who had permits to handle various types of reptiles. And I thought that would be really interesting, but we never did anything with it and the records just sat there. That was a few hundred dollars worth of records. Make sure you have a story first, and you’re just looking for evidence.
Do you ever get nervous about misinterpreting the data?
Yes, you have to be extremely careful. The records themselves are helpful and useful. But you still have to go out and interview. You still have to check your assumptions with people who know the situation. I’ll ask them, “my interpretation is this… am I interpreting this correctly?”
When the series ran what kind of feedback did it get?
Well, it sort of rocked the state actually. Our normal top hits on our website will be 800-1200 a day. We had 6500 hits the first day of the series. And that kept up throughout the entire series. My phone rang constantly the entire week. I got deluged with emails, phone calls, letters… people wanting me to come investigate their case and telling me new angles. I’ve written several stories out of new angles that came out of the initial series. One piece in the series involved talking to lawmakers about reforms and how the drug task force operates. They filed some legislation and I think ended up with a study committee. And there is also talk of impeachment with the district attorney. Ten days after the series ran the state attorney general ordered an investigation. That investigation was completed in December and the state attorney general is reviewing the file right now. I don’t know what will become of it. It’s still ongoing.
Definitely a success?
Made a lot of noise, I know that.
Tips from Walton
If someone in your newsroom has filed an open records request, ask for guidance. “Let yourself be mentored,” Walton said.
Get started. Start something relatively small. Make a records request and figure out the rhythm of how it works. You’ll gain confidence and next time you can do something bigger.
Be familiar with your newsroom’s policy in paying for records. Know how far they are willing to press if you get a denial. “You don’t want to find yourself in the position of threatening a lawsuit and then finding out your company won’t back you up,” Walton said. “Because it permanently reduces your credibility with the people you are trying to find out about.”