Sun-Sentinel wins 12th Annual Joseph L. Brechner Center for Freedom of Information Award
The Sun-Sentinel won this year’s Joseph L. Brechner Center for Freedom of Information Award for its series, “Quick Cash with Few Questions.” The series focused on Fort Lauderdale pawnshops that operate as fronts for criminals to convert stolen goods to quick cash.
The articles shed light on Florida’s new pawnbroking act and the little known provision that exempted pawn slips from Florida’s public records law. The new law required crime victims to sue pawnbrokers to recover their property and name the person who pawned their property. The public records exemption made it impossible for crime victims to discover that name. Without the name of the person who pawned their property, victims could not recover their valuables.
The law written by the Florida Pawnbrokers Association, was sponsored by a state senator who enjoyed a “close personal relationship” with a lobbyist for the pawnbrokers, according to the newspaper reports. “The revelations surrounding legislator/lobbyist efforts to close access to the records and the ensuing legislation to re-open access provides good insight into how government record decisions are made when the public is in the dark, “according to Katherine White, A North Carolina media lawyer and one of the judges. Last year’s winner, Metro Editor of the Times-Picayune Peter Kovacs, and Dr. Charles Davis, a journalism professor at Southern Methodist University, were also judges.
Following the Sun-Sentinel series, new legislation was introduced and passed that allows crime victims access to the pawn slips. The judges also applauded the newspaper’s skillful use of local public records laws with an ambitious feat of computer-assisted journalism. The series, using a computer analysis of 70,000 pawn slips, revealed that 75 percent of the city’s most frequent pawners had criminal arrest records, most of them for burglary, theft or drug offenses.
The Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Daytona Beach News Journal received special commendations for their series on freedom-of-information issues. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin provided an in-depth look at the state’s public access laws from a citizen’s perspective and real-life examples. “Showing why access to public information is important to the public is difficult and this was terrific work,” one of the judges said. The Daytona Beach News Journal was honored for its coverage of secret hospital merger discussions. “This was a well-reported, detailed, tireless and relentless coverage of a crucial community health decision that was being made with absolutely no public input,” according to a judge.
The $3,000 cash award recognizes excellence in reporting about freedom-of-information and First Amendment issues and will be presented at the Florida Sunshine Summit honoring the Brechner Center’s 20th anniversary.