Journalists honored with First Amendment Awards

Four journalists were recognized Saturday afternoon for their use of Virginia's Freedom of Information Act to uncover separate scandals in the governor's office and the state's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. 

Rosalind Helderman, Laura Vozzella and Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post and Katy Burnell Evans of The Daily Progress in Charlottesville were presented with the VPA First Amendment Award on April 5 during the association's annual meeting in suburban Richmond.

Rosalind Helderman, Laura Vozzella and Carol Leonnig

The first reports of the scandal that led to the indictments of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, came in The Washington Post, which reported that Star Scientific executive Jonnie Williams had paid $15,000 in catering fees for McDonnell's daughter's wedding reception.

More stories followed, linking the connections between the McDonnells and Williams' attempts to have his company's food supplement, Anatabloc, promoted and assisted financially by state grants and state medical officials.

Month after month, the reporting continued, with stories about more gifts - a Rolex watch, designer clothes, free flights, golf outings  and lodging at Williams' lake estate - and loans to help keep Virginia's First couple financially solvent. Most of these gratuities were never reported on disclosure filings.

The bylines in the Post included a combination of reporters' names: Rosalind Helderman, Laura Vozzella and Carol Leonnig. Their reports essentially ended McDonnell's promising future in national politics, outed the executive mansion as a chaotic residence and had a role in last year's statewide elections.

The McDonnells now face federal corruption trials after a lengthy grand jury investigation. In the aftermath, the General Assembly passed what legislators called reforms that are supposed to keep things like this from happening again.

The dogged, persistent reporting was done through excellent source development, use of the Freedom of Information Act and, most important, savvy journalists. Helderman, Vozzella and Loenig and the Washington Post held Virginia's highest official and his family accountable - which is why the founders placed press freedom as part of the First Amendment.

Katy Burnell Evans

On an April evening last year, three students at the University of Virginia bought sparkling water, cookie dough and cake mix at a grocery store in Charlottesville and were getting into their car to leave when they were accosted by six plain-clothed men who surrounded their car and attempted to get the students from the car.

The students, thinking they were under attack, drove off when one man beat on a window and another pulled a gun. They called 911 as they were fleeing. They were actually being pursued by state ABC agents, who mistakenly thought the women had illegally bought beer. The driver, a 20-year-old student, was jailed on felony charges for a night and half day.

The case stayed that way until The Daily Progress and reporter Katy Burnell Evans became aware of it. The charges were dropped and the record of the charges later was expunged.

Because of Evans' reporting, the agents, though originally cleared of improper conduct by their supervisors, were re-investigated and found to have violated several department regulations.

The early reporting produced an almost unprecedented response from the public - both statewide and nationally.  The governor's office was flooded with emails and social media complaints about the agents conduct. He demanded a response.  Civil libertarians nationally were outraged and wrote at length about the incident. 

The reporting continued on the errors made by the agents and resulted in several policy changes within the department.  It also resulted in a review of the events by the Virginia State Police. Some politicians are even questioning the need for  the ABC law enforcement agency and urging that it should be eliminated and the duties taken over by state and local police.

Using FOIA and court records searches, Evans was able to track down emails of ABC officials and obtain copies of court records showing that the agent who was leading the raiding party had leadership issues earlier and had been transferred. 

Evans wrote other stories about the agency, its policies and even described in detail the agency's purchase of an expensive major mobile command center, even though many question the need for it.

Evans' stories got statewide attention and nearly all newspapers in Virginia were highly critical of the ABC agency and its conduct.  ABC officials dug in on several occasions and Evans had to use every method she could to cultivate sources and obtain documents for her stories.

Her tenacity in uncovering the improper conduct of the agents that night in Charlottesville and her continuous  reporting helped right a  wrong and exposed  to the public the failings of a state agency that usually operates below the radar.

Evans' reporting is in the finest tradition of the watchdog journalism our founders envisioned.

In other awards handed out by the association on April 5:

Ruth Jones Herrink was awarded posthumously a Lifetime Achievement Award. Herrink died Oct. 12, 2013 at the age of 87. For 30 years, up until her death, Herrink was the publisher of The Journal in King George. The day before she died, she worked on the next edition of The Journal.

Carla Rollins Gutridge, managing editor of Getaway magazine, wrote in a letter nominating Herrink for the Lifetime Achievement Award that "Ruth had a kind heart, but if something was happening that she considered unjust or just plain wrong, Ruth was always the first to jump up on her soapbox and demand justice."

Herrink was instrumental in constructing a new office building in King George to house an urgent care facility and medical offices. As publisher of The Journal, she promoted Love Thy Neighbor Food Bank, the King George Farmers' Market and other community activities.

Prior to moving to King George, Herrink was the director of the department of professional and occupational regulation for the Commonwealth of Virginia. She was appointed by former Gov. Linwood Holton and served in her role under three governors.

Nancy M. Lindsey was inducted into the press association's Golden 50 Club, which is an "honor roll" of individuals who have spent a minimum of 50 years in the newspaper industry. Lindsey began her journalism career as a columnist reporting on events at Stuart High School for the Martinsville Bulletin during the 1961-62 school year.

In the ensuing years, Lindsey worked at The Enterprise in Stuart; was a reporter and feature writer for the Williamsburg Bureau of the Daily Press; the now-defunct Bull Mountain Bugle; and a second stint at The Enterprise. After a few years as a remedial reading teacher, Lindsey rejoined The Enterprise as editor and reporter, positions she continues to hold.

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