In a year marked by revelations of sexual harassment allegations, a dangerous barrel recycling plant in a heavily populated area, and questionable actions by Sauk County officials, the eighth annual Wisconsin Watchdog Awards honored journalists and those who back efforts to promote transparent government.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Raquel Rutledge received the top honor Thursday night as the 2018 recipient of the Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award, which recognizes an individual’s extraordinary contributions to open government or investigative journalism in Wisconsin.
“I would never want to have Raquel investigating me,” Greg Borowski, the Journal Sentinel’s deputy editor for news, projects and investigations, said in introducing Rutledge to the audience of 130 people at The Madison Club.
Borowski noted Rutledge’s capacity to tackle the “hard work of reporting,” as well as her thoughtful and committed approach to producing ethical journalism.
Winner of a 2010 Pulitzer prize for her coverage of fraud in a Wisconsin child-care program for low-income families, Rutledge has uncovered wrongdoing on many fronts. She revealed how contaminated baby wipes led to the death of a Houston toddler. She exposed a steel barrel recycling company for skirting regulations by mixing chemicals that could explode, injuring or even killing workers. She also brought to light the troubles of tourists in Mexico, who experienced alcohol-related blackouts — sometimes after only one drink — then were robbed, raped, injured or even ended up dead.
Rutledge said it takes courageous people to come forward to journalists who bring these issues to the public,
“We need to make it very clear why the public needs us. … People don’t care unless you tell them why they need to care,” Rutledge said.
The award was presented by the evening’s hosts — the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and the Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists — with assistance from the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
The Freedom of Information Council, headed by president Bill Lueders, provided a snapshot of the year’s successes and failures in preserving open government. The council is a nonpartisan group that promotes freedom of the press and helps ensure access for the public to meetings and records.
“Access to information is something we deserve,” Lueders told the audience before announcing the 2017-18 winners of the FOIC’s Openness in Government awards, or “Opees.”
— Political Openness Award (“Popee”): Gov. Scott Walker for issuing an executive order that directed state agencies to improve their performance on open records requests. The order called for limits on fees, quicker response times and regular training for records custodians.
Accepting the award on Walker’s behalf, spokesperson Tom Evenson said the governor has been making a “concerted effort to increase transparency” and that processing records requests is an “arduous process, but a necessary one.”
— Media Openness Award (“Mopee”): Baraboo News Republic reporter Tim Damos, for writing multiple stories that exposed questionable behavior by Sauk County officials. This included uncovering a former highway commissioner who solicited NASCAR tickets from a contractor, as well as Sauk County Board members who allegedly made false sworn statements. The newspaper filed a lawsuit and lodged a complaint alleging additional violations.
— Citizen Openness Award (“Copee”): Former village of Port Edwards administrator Joe Terry, who spent more than 100 hours examining alleged open meeting and ethics violations by the village board. Terry’s investigation and complaint led to a special prosecutor, a settlement requiring officials to receive training on transparency, and five of the seven board members either resigned or were voted out. Terry credited the local newspaper, the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune, with bringing the problems he had uncovered to light.
— Open Records Scoop of the Year (“Scoopee”): The Wisconsin State Journal, including reporter Molly Beck and former reporter Nico Savidge, for uncovering sexual harassment in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning and in the Wisconsin Legislature. Students at Media Milwaukee were co-recipients of the award for their investigation into sexual assault and harassment on the UW-Milwaukee campus.
— Whistleblower of the Year (“Whoopee”): Safety consultant Will Kramer, for exposing dangerous conditions in a Milwaukee-area industrial packaging plant. His whistleblowing led to a Journal Sentinel Watchdog report on the hazardous chemicals inside the plant posing a risk to employees and nearby neighbors.
— No Friend of Openness Award (“Nopee”): The Wisconsin Legislature for Democratic and Republican lawmakers who denied open records requests about sexual harassment claims and refused to provide electronic records in their electronic form; and Republican leaders for negotiating budget details in secret meetings and blocking access to their social media accounts.
This year marks the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s 10th year of operations.
Andy Hall, the Center’s executive director, noted that the Center’s work has been published or cited more than 600 times in the past year and has appeared on 106 front pages of newspapers across the country. The Center recently co-produced its first video documentary, Los Lecheros (Dairy Farmers), exploring the rising tensions over undocumented workers in Wisconsin’s dairy industry since the election of President Trump. The 21-minute film was co-produced with Twelve Letter Films in New York.
The Center’s mission includes holding those in power to account — something Damos emphasized when accepting the Media Openness award. He said there’s always going to be a “tug of war” between government officials and journalists, and that should be expected.
“I’ve spent more than a decade pulling at one end of that rope, and it can be challenging and it can be very uncomfortable. I assume the same is true of those at the other end,” Damos said.
“But this tug of war is necessary because everyone can agree that a healthy democracy depends on government providing as much transparency as possible, and we only get that if there are people at this end of the rope who never stop pulling.”
Prior to the awards ceremony, a free “Watchdog 101” investigative journalism workshop was led by staff and board members of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Presenting were board members Brant Houston, the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Ralph A. Weber, founding member of Gass Weber Mullins law firm in Milwaukee; and Center staff members Andy Hall, executive director; Dee J. Hall, managing editor; and Coburn Dukehart, digital and multimedia director. About 30 student and professional reporters attended.
The law firm Schott, Bublitz & Engel S.C. served as the lead sponsor for the event. Other sponsors included Betty and Corkey Custer, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, Gass Weber Mullins LLC, The Capital Times, the Wisconsin State Journal, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Pines Bach, The Edgerton Reporter, Dick Record, Madison Magazine and Morgan Murphy Media, and Wegner CPAs.