|News Media Update||GEORGIA||Newsgathering|
Two reporters subjects of improper police background checks
- An open records request by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed reporters and politicians targeted by unauthorized background checks by worker with access to county police computer
Sep. 13, 2004 — Two Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters were the subject of unauthorized background checks performed at DeKalb County police computer terminals, the newspaper reported Thursday.
The newspaper learned of the checks on reporters Ben Smith and Eric Stirgus after filing an open records request with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Also subject to background checks were Georgia State Rep. Teresa Greene-Johnson, Democratic candidate Ron Marshall and DeKalb County Commissioner Elaine Boyer, who the newspaper described as “political opponents of DeKalb County Chief Executive Officer Vernon Jones.
The background checks searched outstanding arrest warrants, records on parole and probation, and driver’s license information.
Background checks can be done only for legitimate law enforcement, GBI officials told the paper.
None of the five individuals was under criminal investigation, DeKalb police told the Journal-Constitution .
A tip about the checks sparked the open records request, Stirgus said.
Stirgus, who has been at the newspaper for about three years, covers community government in Henry County and had previously covered DeKalb County.
Stirgus said he is “not sure” why he was singled out for a background check.
Smith, who has been at the paper since 1987, said he primarily covers politics and had covered Jones in the past. Although he did not want to speculate on why he was singled out, Smith said he had written a story about Jones in June 2003 that “upset the CEO greatly.”
The article examined Jones’ security contingent, Smith said.
“[The story] led to a grand jury investigation of how money was being spent,” he said.
DeKalb officials refused an open records request by the newspaper Wednesday for the names of the people who had been working at the terminals in question.
Jones, the DeKalb CEO, said he has no idea who performed the checks and has called an independent investigation into the matter.
© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press