When reporters at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sought access to public records about tax-lien sales that were costing residents of Fulton County millions of dollars, officials said the newspaper could have the data – for a fee.
That fee? $16.2 million.
It was the latest in a string of roadblocks county officials had erected in hopes of avoiding scrutiny of the costly deals, and it persisted until the state attorney general threatened to join the newspaper in suing the county pols.
That snubbing of Georgia’s freedom-of-information laws earned Fulton County a finalist spot – but not the grand prize – in the inaugural “Golden Padlock” award from the journalism group Investigative Reporters and Editors. The partly tongue-in-cheek award is given in recognition of “unrelenting commitment to undermining the public’s right to know.”
As bad as the county tax commissioner’s actions were deemed to be, IRE gave the top prize to the U.S. Border Patrol for what it called stonewalling by the federal agency in response to requests for information about deadly shootings by agents. “The U.S. Border Patrol’s resounding silence on fatal shootings involving its agents epitomizes the kind of intransigence for which this award was created,” IRE president David Cay Johnston said in a press release.
Three other agencies earned finalist spots:
- JobsOhio, a non-profit economic development agency that replaced the Ohio Department of Development, and which was made exempt from most public-records laws despite being established with public money and having access to a huge pool of assets from the state’s control of liquor profits.
- New Jersey Transit, which responded to a request for the agency’s hurricane preparedness plan by providing a document entirely blacked out except for the title.
- The Centers for Disease Control, for its slow response to requests for information on Lyme Disease, including one case in which a requester was made to wait more than five years for records.
The reporters’ group also inducted the U.S. Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder into its “Hall of Shame” for what it called the “Orwellian practice of monitoring journalists’ phone records in pursuit of whistleblowers.”