A battle for records

by

schwager-new1By Mary Schwager

Winning a public records request battle often boils down to one word: persistence. Public officials try to put you off, hoping you’ll go away or get tied up on the next big story. That way, your request for the records that they just don’t want to turn over goes away.

Meanwhile, you’ve pitched the story you need those records for to your bosses. They love it and ask if it can be ready to air on a certain date. You say you’ll let them know because you really need the records. Time passes.

You spend most of that time bugging the local, state or federal office for the information while your managers and editors wonder what in the heck you’re doing. When will that great story you pitched be ready to air? Will it make it in time for the next ratings period? I’ve gotten used to hearing the sighs from my bosses over the years when I answer those questions with, “It all hinges on what we find as a result of the public records request we made and the government agency is stalling.”

Hank Phillippi Ryan and I have developed a saying in our WHDH-TV investigative unit because of this: “Sometimes you’ve just got to go with what you have and keep fighting.”

That’s exactly what we did when we went to battle with the Massachusetts Statewide Emergency Telecommunication Board, the agency in charge of the state’s 911 system. Hank got a call from a viewer one day who said, “I called 911 from my land-line, house phone and the rescue crew thought I still lived at my old address, I moved awhile ago!”

We thought, huh, why and how often does that happens? Turns out there’s a huge Massachusetts e-911 database. Phone companies are responsible for reporting every address linked to a land-line phone number so locations “pop up” automatically on a dispatcher’s screen when someone dials 911. Police can tell where to send help if you are injured and can’t speak – or if the ax murderer is in the next room.

Sometimes phone companies don’t update the database when someone moves and transfers their number. Sometimes the address in the database is just plain wrong. The result can be catastrophic.

We found that each time a police department finds an error in the database they fill out a discrepancy report and send it to the Statewide Emergency Telecommunication Board. When we asked the former director of the agency , Jamie Karp, how many discrepancy reports were filed in the past two years she put us off for a while. Then she would not give us a straight answer and finally said there were about 3,600 mistakes each year. We had a feeling there were more, so we made a public records request for copies of every discrepancy report they received.

The director stalled, at first saying she couldn’t find them all, and they were hard to organize. She did everything she could to put us off. Finally she refused to give us copies. We appealed to the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office. They ruled in our favor.

Still, the director refused to give us copies of the reports. By this time we had been working on the story for months and did not have the records we needed. By that point in 2001, we were in the November ratings period and we needed to air the story. We decided to run what we had so far, even though we knew the story would be much better if we had the actual reports.

After the story aired, we kept fighting for those reports. We asked the Secretary of State’s Office to turn our request over to the Attorney General’s Office for enforcement. The AG ordered the director to give us the reports. (The names of 911 callers, medical info, etc. were redacted from the documents.)

Soon we got a call from the director saying she was pulling up to our station with boxes, yes, boxes, filled with copies of discrepancy reports. She wasn’t kidding. There were thousands of pieces of paper in those boxes and after counting them we discovered there were hundreds and hundreds more mistakes each year than what we were told.

And soon after the massive counting we aired story number two.

Though the names and addresses of the people who made the 911 calls were redacted on the discrepancy reports, we were able to track the real callers down and get new victims for our story, by contacting the police departments who filed the reports and asking them if they recalled the cases.

Shortly after that story aired, we got the news that Karp was “no longer with the agency” and that made for story number three.

We were eventually honored with journalism awards for this series and it’s one of our favorite public records request battle stories. The moral is: keep fighting, don’t let ‘em weasel. We always figure the more they fight a request the more you should find out what they’re trying to hide.

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