Sun Journal wins Publick Occurrences award for CDC investigation

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LEWISTON — The Sun Journal has been awarded the New England Newspaper & Press Association’s prestigious Publick Occurrences award for courage, excellence and independence in reporting.

The award was given to the newspaper for its investigation of document-shredding at the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Created in 1991, the award is named after the first newspaper published in the United States, called Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick, established in Boston on Sept. 25, 1690, and suppressed by the royal governor four days later.

In presenting the award, NENPA judges said the Sun Journal’s investigative work “embodies what the Publick Occurrences award represents. The reporters looked at malfeasance by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and found documents had been shredded and replaced by fake documents; they learned that an employee who tried to prevent this was harassed; and they were forced to file FOIA requests to tell the story which resulted in important action by the state that affected many of its citizens.”

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The judges noted that “excellent reporting and strong editorials were the hallmarks of this series.”

Sun Journal Executive Editor Rex Rhoades said the actions of certain CDC officials “were the most brazen attempt by a government agency to cover its tracks that we have ever seen.”

And, he said, “The Sun Journal’s reporting demonstrated that freedom of information laws and an aggressive free press are essential to government accountability.”

The Sun Journal’s investigation of CDC document-shredding was also named runner-up for NENPA’s Morley L. Piper First Amendment Award for exceptional work in illuminating and upholding the rights and freedoms of the First Amendment.

Judges said, “The newspaper lived up to the highest role envisioned for a free press — serving as watchdog on government — through a major investment of staff effort, well-written stories and strong editorials, and clearly, a commitment of financial resources.”

For the past year, the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee has investigated complaints — including one from the Sun Journal — that the CDC, part of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, destroyed public documents to evade a June 2012 Freedom of Access Act from the newspaper. The Sun Journal sought access to copies of scoring sheets used to distribute $4.7 million to a dozen Healthy Maine Partnerships, which serve as Maine’s informal public health offices.

After more than a year of investigation by the Sun Journal and the state’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, lawmakers determined that top CDC officials anticipated the newspaper would file a FOAA request for access to documents connected to the Healthy Maine funding and ordered middle managers to destroy those documents. Lawmakers also confirmed that CDC officials provided a fabricated scoring sheet to the Sun Journal rather than providing original documents.

In April 2013, CDC official Sharon Leahy-Lind filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission alleging that she had endured months of harassment at work after she refused a direct order to destroy the documents that had been the focus of the Sun Journal’s FOAA request, and the newspaper then launched an investigation into the work culture at the CDC.

In December, OPEGA released a report confirming the Sun Journal’s allegations that documents were destroyed to evade public scrutiny, and after a series of public hearings, the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee confirmed OPEGA’s findings and forwarded a report to the Attorney General’s Office for further review.

Staff Writer Lindsay Tice and State Politics Editor Scott Thistle were the principal writers on this project. Other writers were Rhoades and Judith Meyer, managing editor/days, who wrote editorials critical of CDC’s destruction of public documents and called for accountability from state officials.

The Sun Journal’s award was one of a small number of Publick Occurrences awards handed out to New England newspapers at the NENPA fall conference in Natick, Mass., on Thursday.

Last year, the Sun Journal won a Publick Occurrences award for its investigation of allegations that Gov. Paul LePage pressured hearing officers at the Maine Department of Labor to decide more cases in favor of employers rather than employees, and the resulting federal investigation of these allegations.

In 2008, the Sun Journal won a Publick Occurrences award for a series of stories examining the political climate and civic breakdown in Rumford after a group of citizens cut down trees in front of the municipal building.

The newspaper also won the award in 2007 for its investigative report, “How safe is your school?” for which the newspaper tested the security at 37 local schools. That investigation found that 75 percent of the schools showed gaping holes in security.

And in 1999, the Sun Journal won the award for its series “Bates & Beyond,” examining the viability of the Bates Mill complex after the property was relinquished to the city of Lewiston.

The Sun Journal on Thursday also was named a distinguished newspaper, sharing the honor with The Standard-Times in New Bedford, Mass. In that category, The Day in New London, Conn., was named NENPA’s Newspaper of the Year.

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