TRACY CHAN / The Working Press
Like many good stories, this one started with a tip. While reporting on a whistle-blower lawsuit filed against their city’s mayor, Detroit Free Press reporters M.L. Elrick and Jim Schaefer learned that the plaintiff’s attorney was trying to obtain potentially incriminating text messages sent on city-issued pagers.
Their interest piqued, the pair spent years fighting City Hall for access to the texts, going so far as to bring a lawsuit against the city when it denied their requests for information.
In the end, their investigation uncovered evidence that Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his chief of staff, Christine Beatty, had lied under oath about a sexual relationship in a case that cost the taxpayers of Michigan more than $9 million.
On Thursday, Kilpatrick pleaded guilty, resigned and agreed to spend four months in jail, in addition to paying $1 million in restitution, spending five years on probation and surrendering his law license.
“No one here was doing victory laps,” Schaefer said. “It was confirmation for us that we had put time into something that was really important … when he got up in court and said ‘I lied under oath,’ it was an echo of our initial story.”
For their groundbreaking work in using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to uncover what the city struggled to keep hidden, Elrick and Schaefer will receive the Eugene S. Pulliam First Amendment Award, given to journalists who have fought to protect the rights of the First Amendment.
The annual award is named after the late Eugene Pulliam, the former publisher of The Indianapolis Star and The Indianapolis News who was known for his work in educating the public about First Amendment rights. It comes with a $10,000 cash prize.
“It was only by using the Freedom of Information Act that the Free Press was able to expose a massive fraud on the public and Detroit City Council,” said Paul Anger, the vice president and editor of the newspaper, in a letter nominating the two men.
“Our belief is that we — and the public — are entitled to know everything a public official does,” Elrick said.
The effects of the reporting that Elrick and Schaefer did reached further than one case. Since they first asked for the text messages in 2002, judges in other states, including Texas and Arkansas, have ruled these communications are public records that officials must disclose.
Within a few days of the story’s publication, Beatty resigned, and the Wayne County prosecutors launched an investigation that resulted in 15 felony charges being brought against Kilpatrick and Beatty, alleging perjury, obstruction of justice and misconduct in office.
A few years after Elrick and Schaefer sued for some of the documents they needed to incriminate the mayor, a judge determined that the text messages and other documents, including the mayor’s private appointment calendar and his credit card records, were covered by FOIA.
Elrick and Schaefer broke a number of other stories based on what they found in the documents. “Since breaking the first story, we have worked exclusively on mayor-related stories,” Elrick said. “It is safe to say the last eight months of our lives have been devoted strictly to this investigation and its off-shoots.”
Although the results of their triumph were eventually published, with dramatic results, Elrick said gathering the information was a difficult task. The two reporters continue to encounter opposition from the city’s attorneys when asking for records under FOIA. Some of the requests are now seven months overdue.
“The beauty of text messages is that you are essentially getting a written record of what was happening at a particular moment in time,” Elrick said. “They provide remarkable — and often revealing — insights into what motivated people, as well as what they were thinking at unguarded moments.”
“Jim and I have a simple reporting philosophy that has served us well over the years,” Elrick added. “There’s always SOMEONE who has the information we’re looking for. And if the people who should give it to us won’t, we’ll find someone who will.”
September 4, 2008 • 2008: Atlanta
Elrick, Schaefer to receive Pulliam Award for exposing Detroit mayor’s wrongdoing
By Billy O'Keefe
TRACY CHAN / The Working Press