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June 30, 2011

Burlington Free Press Wages a Battle — for Documents and Headlines

Bilde-1It's hard to not cast a cynical eye on the tsunami of ink the Burlington Free Press has unleashed in trying to obtain police and university documents related to the case of the Essex couple who went missing on June 8. On the one hand, as a fellow journalist, I can sympathize with reporters' and editors' ire over being repeatedly shut down in their public records requests. On the other hand, the daily drumbeat playing out on the front pages of the Free Press seems like little more than a way of generating headlines in a criminal investigation that, for now, is mostly unfolding behind closed doors.

Ever since the June 8 disappearance of William and Lorraine Currier of Essex (pictured) the Free Press has run at least seven stories about the legal wrangling over the paper's denied records requests for search warrants, police affidavits and UVM emails belonging to William Currier, an animal-care technician employed by a university subcontractor. Both the Chittenden County State's Attorney's Office and UVM officials have repeatedly denied those requests.

Based on the number of Free Press writers who have penned stories on this subject (four), as well as the urgent tone of their headlines — "Ruling pending on release of Currier case search warrant" (June 23); "Warrants, emails challenged in Currier case" (June 23); "Prosecutor challenges judge's ruling to release warrants to media in case of missing Essex couple (June 25); "Supreme Court keeps Essex search documents secret" (June 27); "Court rules to temporarily seal warrants in case of missing Essex couple," (June 28);  "Judge: Prosecutor's case for sealing search warrants in missing couple case weak" (June 30) — one could led to believe that Vermont's courthouses are under siege by an army of Gannett lawyers filing repeated motions and memoranda in the name of the Fourth Estate.

Free Press photo At least, that what I assumed when I queried managing editor Mike Townsend about the Free Press' ongoing court battle with Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan. Thus far, Donovan has refused to release any of the documents, at the behest of Essex Police Chief Brad LaRose, and has asked the Vermont Supreme Court to uphold his decision.

"The Free Press has not engaged in a court battle or enlisted the services of an attorney," answered associate editor Mike Kilian in an email to Seven Days.

"Not engaged in a court battle?"  That's an interesting, if disingenuous, take on things, considering the print headline on the June 25 front-page Free Press story: "Court battle brews in missing couple case."

To be fair, the Free Press hasn't actually made its case in court — just the court of public opinion. However, that's likely to change soon, as the Vermont Supreme Court has asked both sides to file court papers about the records request by July 6.

"Three judges' rulings to date have concluded that the State's Attorney's Office has failed to make the case that release of the search warrants would impede the investigation," Kilian noted, "and our hope would be that the Supreme Court concurs."

Is this a bonafide violation of Vermont's open-records law — a cause the Free Press has been championing for months, as evidenced by its daily chronicle of open-records provisions and the legal exemptions thereto — or a tempest in a teapot?

Obviously, Donovan believes the latter. While he said he understands the need for transparency and the media's right to access public records, that right is "not absolute."

"For me, part of the critical question here with search warrants is the timing of when they’re [made] public," Donovan said. "Are they public after charges are filed? That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that. But during the pendency of an investigation, where perhaps there is an alleged perpetrator out there who could gain an advantage by having access to this information, I don’t think there are strong public policy reasons for releasing that information."

University officials have essentially staked out similar legal ground, according to Enrique Corredera, UVM's director of communications.

"We have regularly demonstrated our commitment to openness and transparency, especially when responding to public records acts requests," said Corredera. "But in this case, the request involved records previously provided to police as part of an ongoing investigation involving potential criminal activity. Our position is that we simply cannot take any action that could potentially interfere with an ongoing police investigation."

In the meantime, one might also assume that the Freeps' reporters are onto an especially juicy lead that justifies compromising the integrity of an ongoing criminal investigation: Are the Essex Police covering something up? Have their detectives botched the investigation? Is the family frustrated by the pace of new developments?

"That would be speculation," Kilian wrote back. "All I'll say is that the free flow of information assists the public in gauging the effectiveness of their elected and appointed officials.

"The Currier disappearance has generated considerable public interest and concern," he added. "The Essex police have shed very little light on the case. We believe release of the search warrants has the potential to build public understanding of what might have occurred in a high-profile case." Not to mention the potential for more headlines.

But Essex Chief LaRose begged to differ on who's shedding light versus heat. Pointing out that he and other Essex officers are fielding media inquiries "every day" on the Currier case, "I think we’ve been very open with all the media in sharing what we can," LaRose argued. "We’re putting out as much information as we can without compromising the investigation."

Could the release of the warrant returns — that is, what police turned up in their search of the Curriers' home — actually compromise the investigation?

"I'd say stronger than 'could,'" LaRose said. "I can't say definitely, but there's a strong possibility."

Some information included in the police affidavits would be known only to family members, police or a potential perpetrator, LaRose noted. Moreover, he's asked the family not to be public about certain details, in the greater interest of finding the couple more quickly.

"We asked the family to try to help us out here and not make it any more public than we have to," LaRose explained, without mentioning specifics. "We can’t say it’s protected information that only the police know, but it does help us to narrow the scope of things."

Early on, LaRose said, the family had questions about why detectives couldn’t share more information with them. "But when we explained it to them, they understood it right out of the chute why we do things like that and were appreciative of it," LaRose said. "It's very difficult for them, but they understand that we’re doing everything we can do to figure out where Bill and Lorraine are. And, they’re 100 percent behind our efforts."

When asked if the family has designated someone who might answer a reporter's questions on this legal brouhaha, LaRose added, "They don't want to speak to the media."

Finally, LaRose seemed at a loss to understand why the Free Press was putting on the full court press for information that will be made public in due time. As he put it, "Jeez, we’re all in this together, the public and police, trying to get justice served here in the best way possible."

It's a shame the Free Mess doesn't spend but a tiny fraction of the effort it spends on mindlessly flogging its idiotic "open government" crusade on, oh, say, better world news coverage, better editorial writing, and actually checking the articles and headlines for grammar and spelling mistakes, etc. Perhaps people would have just a tad more respect for it. It certainly appears that the editors are single-minded morons.

Newsflash to Free Press: pretty much everyone I've talked to thinks you're a bunch of idiots for trying to disrupt an ongoing criminal investigation!

And it's not "free." It costs 75 cents to get the daily 3-4 sheets of this bird-cage liner.

I'm really sorry the connoisseurs of candor at the Free Press missed the fact that the Shumlin Administration and legislature passed a law specifically exempting the selection process for the Green Mountain Health Board from public disclosure.

I understand that every day people applying to a regular employer for a regular job deserve privacy. I understand a lawyer who wants to be a judge not being embarrassed by being turned down.

But these aren't every day people and these aren't regular jobs. These aren't even judges. These five people will be establishing all the rules for 20% of our economy - our health care system. I'd like to know who applied and did not get chosen, and why; and how all the candidates stacked up. How will we know the choices were even-handed, that the most talented, smart and tough were nominated, and rather than being based on a litmus test of political loyalty?

The legislature probably spent more time on the language around the nominating process than they did on any other part of Act 48, the Free Press even wrote a little about it, and yet the bill ends up allowing this all to be done in secret. What kind of accountability is that? Where was the Free Press when we needed them? Out selling ads and papers, perhaps?

The Burlington Enquirer, is now one step above Cosmo. It's gossip, and written such that it rarely carries real news. The spin is so heavy that it is borderline fiction. From Mike Townsends tanrum when "moderatoring" the guv's debate, the incessant censorship that occurs on their forums over poltical views, to the John Briggs complaining when commentors criticize his skewing of facts, the Burlington Free Press hangs on by the fact that no one regulates newspapers. The Burlington Free Press is terrible and they really need their press credentials revoked. If there were some true competition they would be out of business. They are terrible, and frankly I would be embarrassed to work for them. The best part of that paper is the crosswords.

The crossword. I pretty much pay the 75 cents to play the crossword. And to see who died.

That's the sum and substance of what that alleged crappy "newspaper" is worth. Crossword and obituaries.

And they spend their entire time complaining that they aren't allowed to see a search warrant used in an important ongoing criminal investigation.

They are the definition of "don't get it."

Morons. Absolute and total morons.

BFMess is owned by Gannett News what do you expect?

Do they run ads for Glenn Beck's show, like the one I just saw here? Now that would REALLY be troubling.

Criticizing the Burlington Free Press for filing Freedom of Information Act requests is rather hypocritical, considering the Seven Days has taken the same approach in news gathering.

The most recent example is with the Seven Days tabloid "scandal" surrounding Rachel Fogel, which spawned from your efforts at digging through divorce court filings and UVM employee email boxes.

Of course, the Seven Days knew that this wasn't really a scandal of any substance and agreed with a request from UVM to postpone publishing it until after graduation.

Nevertheless, the concept of an open and transparent government is important, despite the misguided efforts of the Seven Days and BFP.

Eric, this post isn't "criticizing the Burlington Free Press for filing a Freedom of Information Act request," which in Vermont is actually called an open-records request. (FOIA is a federal law.) Journalists, myself included, file FOIA and open-records requests all the time. Rather, this post debates the legitimacy of generating story after story every day about how the police and state's attorney are stonewalling those document requests, when the police have already explained to the press and the family that releasing certain key details may compromise the integrity of an ongoing criminal investigation.

As anyone who has worked in law enforcement or criminal prosecution can tell you, there are times when information needs to be kept confidential, even from family members, in order to ascertain whether someone who comes forward claiming to have insights into a potential crime is legit.

Hypothetically speaking, if police don't release that the cause of death in an active homicide investigation was strangulation, and someone later comes forward to say that he knows who stabbed the victim, the police know he's full of shit. Small but critical details like this one can make the difference between a missing persons case being solved, or not.

As for the example you cite, involving Dan Fogel and Rachel Kahn Fogel, you should know that, unlike this case, UVM officials determined that there was legitimate basis for turning over those emails to Seven Days, and to then subsequently launch their own investigation into potential wrongdoing. What you probably don't know is that Shay Totten, who broke that story, invested considerable time and effort, both in discussions with other Seven Days staff and in reviewing those documents himself, to determine whether there was anything more to this story than just the prurient interest of readers. In the end, he determined that the documents raised legitimate questions about potential abuse of power on the taxpayers' dime, as UVM is a public institution. Obviously, some readers disagree.

Finally, in this post, I didn't question whether the BFP is legally entitled to see the search warrants and returns. That's a question that will be determined by the Vermont Supreme Court. But just because a news outlet has the right to do something doesn't necessarily mean it should in each and every case. I stand by the principles of open government and believe there are many times when government officials need to have their feet held to the fire when they're trying to keep things quiet to protect their own interests. But I'm unconvinced that that's true in the Currier case, and thus far the Free Press hasn't made any suggestions to that effect, except to complain that police aren't telling them enough to generate a new story each day.

But as unfortunate as it may be to news outlets, sometimes they need to let police do their jobs until there is something new to report — or better yet, go out there and do the old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting to find something new on their own, rather than waiting for the police to simply fork it over.


I couldn't agree with you more. Every day I read another article in the Free Press about their request for more information in the Currier case that has been blocked by Mr. Donovan, I get extremely angry. Can't the public and the Free Press understand that law enforcement officials NEED to keep some information in an active investigation secret? To me the repeated articles don't show concern for the missing couple (if they were concerned they would understand the police's need for non-disclosure), but more about getting their way. I love your last paragraph and agree, perhaps BFP should hire an investigative reporter!

Investigative reporters with $100.00 bills do a lot better than those armed with a freedom of information act in criminal cases.
Not that I condone that type activity, but, and I say but again, the FBI might have done some of this in the past, not that I condone it, but.

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