A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists


By Quill

State destroys records in hunt for runaway lawmakers

In a one-sentence e-mail order, the Texas Department of Public Safety ordered that all records and photos from a search for Democratic state representatives who left for Oklahoma on May 11 be destroyed. The representatives left the state the day before a scheduled vote on redistricting efforts, proposed by the Republicans, making a vote under Texas law impossible because there could be no quorum.

The e-mail, obtained on May 20 by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, instructed that all “notes, correspondence, photos, etc.” concerning the search “be destroyed immediately.” The e-mail came from the DPS commander.

After a request by Rep. Lon Burnham, D-Fort Worth, a state judge on May 22 issued a temporary order barring the destruction of some DPS records that had not already been destroyed. DPS said that federal law, which does not allow police to keep intelligence gathered on anyone not suspected of criminal activity, mandated the destruction.

In leaked e-mail, SEC head warns of leaks

William Donaldson, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, warned SEC employees in an April 29 e-mail against leaking any sensitive information to the news media. His e-mail was later leaked to the media. He also said that the number of people with access behind-the-scenes might be limited.

In the e-mail, Donaldson expressed concern about leaks of possible insider trading charges against Wall Street analyst Holly Becker and her husband, stock trader Michael Zimmerman. Donaldson said the stories in the press about the Becker issue were “particularly outrageous.”

“The kind of leaks we have seen over the past few weeks are fundamentally unfair to the people and companies being investigated, but not yet charged,” he wrote in the e-mail. “… In addition, they damage our efforts to conduct effective investigations that lead to enforcement actions and ultimately protect the investing public.”

Chicago Tribune settles FOI suit with city

Chicago will speed up its release of public-information requests after reaching settlement with the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune filed a lawsuit in December 2000, charging that requests under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act were regularly ignored or delayed by the city.

Under the settlement, the city did not admit it had violated the FOIA and continued to maintain that Tribune requests were either vague or too broad.

Media concerned about encoded radio systems

Public city workers in Miami, including police, firefighters and others, have switched to a new communication system that uses encrypted radio transmissions. The change, meant to stop eavesdropping and heighten homeland security measures, has raised concern from media groups that access to city communications will be lost.

The new radio system links police, emergency services, city workers and the JEA power company. The decision to use it was made in early April, said Carol Hladke, chief of support services for the Jacksonville, Fla., Sheriff’s Office. The system began operation in mid-June.

It will be up to officials whether media outlets or anyone from the general public will be given radios that can pick up the encrypted transmissions, Hladke said. She added that the old scanners were used by criminals to follow police movements – a concern that has led police departments in other cities to adopt similar communications systems in recent years.

Access laws in Florida do not include radio transmissions, said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a media-supported advocacy group.

Court will hear FOI case for Foster photos

This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments about access to photographs taken at the scene of Vincent Foster’s death. The man’s 1993 cause of death at a federal park in McLean, Va., was ruled a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Foster was deputy counsel to the Clinton White House.

The case was accepted just after a decision not to hear a case dealing with privacy exemptions. In that case, the government said the FOI Act protects the names of gun owners and sellers whose guns are used in crimes. The court had agreed to hear the case, but legislation was passed disallowing use of federal funds to make such information available. The case was then sent back to the lower court to determine the new law’s effects on the case. The government has used privacy exemptions more often in the past decade in an effort to protect information that names individuals.

State denies request for list of sars cities

In May, the Connecticut Department of Public Health denied the Manchester Journal Inquirer access to the hometowns of people with possible Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome cases.

The department cited privacy concerns in denying the request, which came after three cases were reported in the state. Numerous other cases have been reported since then.

“The department cannot produce reports in response to specific requests that would result in linking the report to an identifiable individual or organization,” said William Gerrish, a spokesman for the department.

The newspaper requested only the town names where the possible SARS carriers lived. The newspaper said there should be no privacy concerns, since specific names, addresses or other personal information were not requested.

Media denied wider access in Nichols case

A media request for more access to documents dealing with the case of Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols was denied by a state appeals court on May 16.

In a unanimous decision, the court said a judge did not abuse his discretion by barring numerous media groups, including The Associated Press, from duplicating exhibits from the preliminary hearing. Reporters, the court said, do have the right to inspect the documents – but that by publishing or broadcasting them, potential jurors could be influenced.

The judge in the case has bound over Nichols for trial on 162 counts of first-degree murder in the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. State prosecutors will seek the death penalty. Nichols is already serving a life sentence after being convicted on federal charges for the deaths of eight law enforcement officers who died in the bombing. The 160 victims in the state charges were not part of the federal trial. Also included in the trial charges are the deaths of two of the victims’ unborn children.

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