Sunday, April 03, 2011

Gish Award winner says her investigation of sheriff was based largely on records requests

The investigation that largely won Samantha Swindler, right, the 2010 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues was based largely on a simple fundamental of reporting: requests for public records, Swindler said this weekend in "On the Media," the public-radio series about journalism and the news business. "A lot of it was through open-records reqiuests, and we had to fight for every single one of them," Swindler, the publisher of the weekly Tillamook Headlight-Herald on the Oregon coast, told interviewer Brooke Gladstone.

Swindler was managing editor of the 6,000-circulation daily Times Tribune in Corbin, Ky., when she heard a sportswriter joke about gun sales at the back door of the barber shop owned by then-Whitley County Sheriff Lawrence Hodge. When the paper filed a request for the sheriff's evidence logs and he mounted an aggressive defense, forcing the paper to appeal to the state attorney general, "I realized there was something a lot bigger going on," Swindler said. "When we finally got a chance to view the evidence logs, I saw that there were months where there was nothing logged." The sheriff said "we just flush" drugs, but state police said he can't do that.

When the paper filed a records request about 18 seized guns, the sheriff announced that his office had been broken into and 78 guns, drug evidence and paperwork were taken, "When that happened, I realized we were really onto something," Swindler said. "I knew we were on to something before, but then I knew, 'Oh my gosh, it's this bad: He staged a break-in of the sheriff's office.' I'm absolutely concinved that is what has happened." She said that was borne out by a recently filed affadavit from a federal agent describing how drug dealers helped Hodge dispose of guns. He has been indicted.

To listen to the 6½-minute interview with Swindler, or get a transcript, click here. To read more details of her investigation and the Gish Award, go here. Her article about the investigation, and her reflections on rural journalism, in the latest Nieman Reports from Harvard University, is here. UPDATE, April 6: Greg Masters of American Journalism Review reports on Swindler's work.

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