Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Rural Ky. paper's use of open records and shoe leather helps lead to indictment of sheriff

A Kentucky sheriff has been indicted by a special grand jury appointed in part because a local newspaper kept reporting on problems in the sheriff's office. Among the problems the Corbin Times-Tribune found were irregularities in how Whitley County sheriff Lawrence Hodge, right, accounted for guns his officers had seized, problems with Hodge’s alleged payments to informants, the failure to present cases against anyone arrested for felony drug violations, and officers' failure to appear in court. In one case, charges were dismissed against a Corbin man arrested for operating a methamphetamine lab near a school after sheriff’s deputies failed three times to appear before the grand jury, the paper reported.

The 6,000-circulation daily also reported that Hodge’s department failed to send seized drugs to the state crime laboratory for examination. It uncovered the information by requesting records from the lab, finding that the department had submitted drugs for testing only once during 2009, though the sheriff said he had been making arrests throughout the year. The paper also requested documents related to the seizure of 18 weapons. Hodge initially told the paper that agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had seized the weapons instead of his department. Later, Hodge reported that his office had been burglarized. The paper's review of the serial numbers indicated as many as 16 of the missing guns were among those Hodge had reported stolen.

The Times-Tribune's editor at the time, Samantha Swindler, right, told The Rural Blog: "It was a lot of work and, honestly, sometimes it was a little scary. But it is by far the most important work I've done in my career. I know resources in a newsroom can be scarce, but investigative work is essential in small towns, where the good ol' boy system still thrives. I'd just encourage editors to push their reporters to go after these types of leads. It's important. And I'm not taking about important for circulation or ad sales. It's important for society. God help me if I see a wrong in my community and think I don't have the time to right it. If I get to that point, it's time to quit the business." Swindler is now general manager of the Tillamook Headlight-Herald, on the Oregon coast west of Portland. The Times-Tribune is owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.; the chain's vice president for news, Bill Ketter, told The Rural Blog that the work "illustrates what a small, rural paper can do when it holds public officials accountable and doesn't get scared off by the big, powerful sheriff."

Hodge was indicted Monday on 18 charges of abuse of public trust and three counts of tampering with physical evidence — all felonies, the paper reports. The grand jury said Hodge began taking money the first year he was in office. The thefts totaled about $350,000, Commonwealth's Attorney Allen Trimble said. Trimble told The Rural Blog that the paper's "very persistent" reporting "was a very significant influence on me." Without it, he said, Hodge probably would have been indicted anyway, but not before his term ends in January; he lost the primary election.


Brian said...

THIS is what good journalism is. Not the usual corporate media fare of incessant 'analysis' of horse race polls or speculation on whether my state's not-even-sworn-in-yet governor-elect is going to run for president.

Anonymous said...

There are plenty of fine journalists at "corporate" newspapers who did this kind of work every day. Perhaps you need to open your eyes, and your mind.