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Peabody Award Winners: WTAE-TV, Pittsburgh, ‘The Fight for Open Records’

WTAE-TV’s “The Fight for Open Records” is all about how one good story leads to another, according to investigative reporter Jim Parsons.

The Pittsburgh Hearst-Argyle station produced a story on loafing employees of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (known as Penn DOT). When the Penn DOT press secretary flew on a state-owned plane to Pittsburgh to attend Mr. Parsons’ interview with two executives, the newsman made a mental note to check on who was using these state planes and for what reasons. That research led to a story on the abuse of state-owned planes.

But it didn’t stop there. One entry in the planes’ logs caught his attention. “I found that in one weekend in June 2005, a group of legislators and their wives used the plane to fly into Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, this very posh, luxury spa,” Mr. Parsons said. “And the agency that signed off is the Pennsylvanian Higher Education Assistance Agency,” or PHEAA.

He quickly learned that PHEAA’s board members are state legislators, and he determined to investigate that agency. “I had a hunch employees were flying all over the country and maybe all over the world,” he said. “When I pressed a state spokesman for PHEAA about why his people needed to use the state planes, he said, ‘We’re not really a state agency, we’re a business.’ Any government employee who makes the argument that they’re really a private business … I want to know lots about them.”

The story took a surprising twist after Mr. Parsons submitted a request for information under the State’s Right to Know law in July 2005 (joined by a reporter from the Associated Press and another from the Patriot News newspaper). All three reporters were served with notices of intent to sue by PHEAA.

“That’s a first for me,” said Mr. Parsons. “Normally, a state agency will give you a written response as to why they won’t turn over public records. You can appeal and go to court. Instead, they sued us.”

The legal staff of the three news organizations decided to pool their resources to fight the case. “We were victorious at every level in court, but PHEAA kept appealing to a higher and higher level,” said Mr. Parsons. “When the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania turned down their request for an appeal, the Commonwealth Court awarded us attorney fees, which is unheard of in Pennsylvania.”

When Mr. Parsons finally received the records he’d asked for, he quickly understood why PHEAA had gone to such lengths to protect them. The first batch of records, related to midlevel employees, revealed that they had bought kegs of beer and rented tuxedos with public funds. But the second batch of records, on executives and board members, many of whom were legislators, was what really shocked the public.

“State lawmakers were treating themselves at expensive resorts, $150 cigars, falconry lessons, lots of golf, lots of booze and spa treatments for their wives,” he said. “The total amount on all these retreats over four to five years was almost $1 million.”

WTAE-TV did 20 stories on the topic. The PHEAA CEO was forced to resign, but no truly substantive changes took place.

What did happen was the beginning of a conversation to change Pennsylvania’s open records law, which was passed in 1952.

“After this story ran, it pushed legislators to pass a new open records law that will go into effect in January 2009,” Mr. Parsons said. “Under the old law, the presumption was that nothing was a public record. Under the new law, it’s flipped around. Now, everything is a public record.”

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